Supreme Authority

Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books BY Jess McHugh. New York: Dutton. 432 pages. $28.
The cover of Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books

Noah Webster’s influence reached far beyond the pages of the dictionary or the speller. Even those Americans who have never read his work or heard his name are still bearers of his legacy. He shaped the underpinnings not only of American education and language standardization but also of the nation as a whole. The idea that America was a new experiment capable of surpassing Europe, the notion of a nationalism based on uniformity, the belief that the United States was a sort of country on a hill—Webster cemented and spread these ideas through the building blocks of language itself. The lexicographer was of course not the only one to maintain and express these principles. But more than even the writings of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, Noah Webster’s ideas were made accessible to the public at large, put in the hands of nearly every young American in the nineteenth century to be read and reread until they were committed to memory.

Over the years that followed, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary continued to serve as a text that both invented and reinforced American cultural beliefs and norms. Where Webster had drawn on his Christian and nationalist leanings to pass judgment on words surrounding God and government, the authors of the subsequent dictionaries continued to shape the American psyche with definitions that were less than objective. For example, the 1934 Webster’s Dictionary defined the word “Apache” as “nomads, of warlike disposition and relatively low culture.” The dictionary did not just define things as they were; it defined them as how a ruling faction of Americans felt about them or understood them to be. The 1934 edition was more than eight times as big as Webster’s first unabridged dictionary, clocking in at six hundred thousand entries and weighing seventeen pounds. It referred to itself as a “supreme authority” and as such took on the same kind of haughty tone. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, dictionaries continued to serve as a prime tool for education, including encyclopedic information that extended far beyond word definitions. The dictionary functioned as a vehicle for literacy and cultivation—as well as the social mobility that those things could bring to the reader. To display the seventeen-pound tome in one’s home was in and of itself a type of cultural cachet.

As time went on, the dictionary came to more closely capture language as it was spoken. Throughout the twentieth century, as authors such as John Steinbeck and Zora Neale Hurston made dialect into the fodder for literature, the dictionary reflected the blurring of the lines between high and low culture. The Merriam-Webster dictionary released in 1961, referred to as Webster’s Third (despite not being the third edition), caused a veritable scandal for its attempts to represent vernacular English, even including the word “ain’t.” The authors of the dictionary were no longer capturing language as spoken by educated Connecticut white men but as spoken by everyone, complete with slang and dialects. Webster’s Third incorporated thorough definitions of baseball terms—and the press release for the new dictionary even included Betty Grable (the definition for “leggy” had been updated, and an entry for “pinup” had been added). Many disapproved of this edition, so much so that a critic for the New Yorker said that Merriam-Webster had “made a sop of the solid structure of English and encouraged the language to eat up himself.” But Philip Gove, the editor in chief at the time, stood by his choice, believing that dictionaries should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Gove wanted the dictionary to reflect the way English was spoken and written in 1961, not just in college lectures or great novels but on television shows and on the back of Campbell’s soup cans. In the twentieth century, dictionaries would increasingly embrace this mixture of high and low print culture, as well as regional variations among English speakers. The 1960s were also the time when researchers led by Frederic G. Cassidy interviewed nearly three thousand people in 1,002 US communities to compile the Dictionary of American Regional English, whose first volume eventually came out in 1985. DARE defined regionally specific terms such as “honeyfuggle” (a verb meaning to swindle) and “jugarum” (a type of bullfrog found in the Northeast). Putting these words into dictionaries gives them a new kind of recognition—power, even. Linguistic projects, both within and outside the context of dictionaries, started to embrace the ways in which regional variation persists not just through accent but in words themselves. It’s not as if people from different regions of the United States cannot communicate at all, even if it takes a moment longer for a Bostonian to describe what a rotary is, or for a midwesterner to clarify that they mean “pop” as in a beverage and not a grandfather. No matter how standard each person thinks his speech is, the geographically vast and culturally disparate United States has made it such that everyone’s language bears markers of their background.

A baseline educated way of speaking remains, however, even if that baseline varies from state to state and from situation to situation. Unjust as it may be, Connecticut professors might still judge a southern drawl as ignorant, and someone whose English is exceptionally inflected with dialect or slang might succeed less well than a Websterian counterpart in a job interview at a New York company. This, too, might be part and parcel of Webster’s legacy: we have always lived in this wonderfully diverse nation, and yet many Americans still see that fact as a point of weakness rather than a strength. Much like Webster, an undercurrent in American culture views diversity and national unity as somehow at odds. And yet, for all the talk of standardization, the United States is only one of a handful of countries around the world that has no official language.

Excerpted from Americanon by Jess McHugh, published by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Jess McHugh.