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Review of Noah Webster: Man of Many Words

reef_noah websterNoah Webster: Man of Many Words
by Catherine Reef
Middle School, High School   Clarion   214 pp.
8/15   978-0-544-12983-2   $18.99   g

Think of what it would be like to create the first American dictionary: selecting the words, including those used in science and math as well as those from everyday speech; determining spelling, such as favor over favour; establishing unique definitions; composing sentences to define words in context; and researching the etymology of those words. The task is herculean, and it is a wonder that any one man, particularly this man, completed the project. Noah Webster (1758–1843) is shown here to have a real passion for words, and for using them to express his decided opinions, but he also cannot seem to find a niche in life. Restless, he teaches, tries lawyering, lecturing, publishing, and writing, never sticking with any vocation for any period of time, an aimlessness that creates an uneven, though honest, trajectory for the narrative. But Webster always comes back to the romance of words, and late in life he finally settles down to complete his dictionary, one that feeds on his passion for language as well as on his federalist political leanings and belief that it is a common, accepted American language that will unite the country. (Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language was published in November 1828.) Historical background gives context to this cradle-to-grave biography, and an epilogue discusses how our language continues to change. Documentation, a selected bibliography, and an index (unseen) complete the book.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Betty Carter

Betty Carter, an independent consultant, is professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

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