Alpha Male

Alpha Male

The letter A “is the first letter of the Alphabet in most of the known languages of the earth… It is naturally the first letter, because it represents the first vocal sound naturally formed by the human organs; being the sound uttered with a mere opening of the mouth without constraint & without any effort to alter the natural position or configuration of the lips.”

So begin the handwritten notes of New Haven’s Noah Webster, author of the first and longest-lasting dictionary devoted specifically to American English. Housed in the collection at New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library, Webster’s original notes on the letter A, once bound but now separated from their seam, are fragile, their edges crinkled and discolored. But the lexicographer’s hand is neat and flowing, interrupted by the occasional Hebrew or Arabic letter which appears more painstakingly written. Large sections are slashed through in ink or literally cut and pasted on the page, with occasional afterthoughts written sideways down the margins like stray bits of yarn from a woven pattern.

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His notes on the letter B can be found in another Whitney Library archival folder:

B is the second letter & the first articulation or consonant, in the English, as in the Hebrew, Greek, Latin & most other alphabets. In the Ethiopic, it is the ninth letter, its shape is that of a hut. Perhaps from this or other like figure, it received its Hebrew name beth, a house…

Upon completing his manuscripts on A and B, Webster appears to have grasped the vast, deep ocean of the project on which he had embarked. “… after writing through two letters of the alphabet, I determined to change my plan,” he wrote in his Author’s Preface to the eventual dictionary. “I found myself embarrassed at every step, for want of a knowledge of the origin of words…” He then spent, by his own account, 10 years learning, comparing and arranging “principal words” in 20 different languages before completing the remainder of the dictionary.

A native of West Hartford and a Yale alumnus, Webster moved his family from New York City to New Haven in the spring of 1798, when he was 39. “My attachment to the State of Connecticut, my acquaintances, my habits, which are literary & do not correspond with the bustl of commerce & the taste of people perpetually inquiring for news and making bargains; together with the cheapness of living, are among my motives for this change of Residence,” he wrote in his diary, as quoted by biographer John S. Morgan.

By the time of his return to New Haven, Webster had already taught school, practiced law, published two newspapers and a magazine, authored books on grammar, spelling and American policy and was busy finishing his book History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases. He was already the well-known author of The American Spelling Book, first published in 1783, which became colloquially known as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” and, like his later dictionary, is still in print today.

The first edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old. The dictionary’s initial print run was 2,500 copies bound in “two bulky volumes,” writes Webster biographer Harlow Giles Unger, “each about eight hundred pages, at $20 for the set…” America took notice. “For the first time in his life, Webster heard nothing but paeans from across the nation—indeed, from across the face of the earth—for his literary effort,” Unger writes. “Hailed by everyone from the president of the United States to the ordinary yeoman, Webster became America’s literary hero.”

According to Encyclopædia Britannica, Webster was responsible for a number of English language innovations, “including perhaps the first separation of i and j, and of u and v, as alphabetical entities.” Many of the crafted and revised sentences from the Whitney Library’s A and B manuscripts appear verbatim in the later 1853 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, also held in the library’s collection. This version was published by George and Charles Merriam in Springfield, Massachusetts, who purchased the rights from Webster’s estate after his death in 1843. The single-volume copy runs to 1,367 pages and begins with a lengthy dissertation on the definition and origin of language, the affinity of many languages, “progress and changes of the English language,” side-by-side comparisons of the words included in five earlier well-known dictionaries, notes on the English alphabet and rules for pronunciation.

Webster wrote in his Author’s Preface,

f, in short, our vernacular language can be redeemed from corruptions, and our philology and literature from degradation; it would be a source of great satisfaction to me to be one among the instruments of promoting these valuable objects. If this object can not be effected, and my wishes and hopes are to be frustrated, my labor will be lost, and this work must sink into oblivion.

His labor was not lost. Today, Merriam-Webster continues to publish its print edition of the dictionary as well as other language-related products, and tens of millions of visitors use its website each month. Reading through Webster’s handwritten pages, it’s interesting to note the continued evolution of American English. Even in our lifetime, for example, the word “bachelor” has begun to slip away, co-opted by reality TV but rarely, if ever, used any longer to describe “a man of any age, who has not been married; often with the word old,” much less “a knight of the lowest order, or, more correctly, a young knight, styled a knight bachelor.” At the same time, countless new entries have appeared since 1823. In the A section, for example, we now take for granted “also-ran,” “appetizer,” “asexual,” “aerodynamics.”

“Abecedar’ian. n (a word formed from the four first letters of the alphabet),” as Webster wrote in his A notes, remains in Merriam-Webster today, though its definition has shifted from an emphasis on “one who teaches” to “one learning the rudiments of something (such as the alphabet).”

Teacher and learner both, the word still suits the man remembered for, as Britannica puts it, “giving American English a dignity and vitality of its own.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. This story was originally published on May 21, 2019.

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