Item of the Day: Noah Webster’s Letter to John Pickering (1817)

Full Title:  A Letter to the Honorable John Pickering, on the Subject of his Vocabulary; or, Collection of Words and Phrases, Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America.  By Noah Webster.  Boston:  Published by West and Richardson, 1817.

To The

Honorable

John Pickering. 

Sir,

When I first read your Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases, supposed to be peculiar to the United States, I found in it many things which appeared to deserve animadversion, and thought it incumbent on me, whose Dictionary you have often cited, to publish some remarks upon particular parts of it, and to correct what I apprehend to be erroneous opinions on the subject.  On more mature reflection however, I hesitated whether it would be expedient to trouble you or the public with my explanations and strictures.  the unfriendly dispositions manifested toward me by men of high standing in the republic of letters, and particularly in this Commonwealth, and the virulence with which every effort to detect errors in long received opinions has hitherto been assailed; a virulence by no means compatible with a candid desire of improvement, and probably not warranted by the low estimate which even my opposers have formed of my talents, labors and public services; these dispositions, affording little ground to expect that any remarks of mine would have a salutary influence upon public opinion, have, at times, disposed me to withhold all strictures upon philological subjects, till I can prepare a more critical and extended treatise, than has yet been exhibited to the public.  To a man who seeks his own tranquillity, and whose sole object is to enlighten and benefit his fellow-citizens, controversy, even when conducted with liberality, is extremely irksome; and, rather than be engaged in it, I would spend the small portion of life that remains to me, in the humble walks of obscurity.  In controversy with my fellow citizens, on any subject, I will not be engaged.   The following remarks, drawn from me as much by the solicitations of friends, as by my own love of truth, are not intended to provoke one; and it is my sincere desire that my observations and statements may be marked by that candor and moderation which so honorably distinguish yours. . . .

With regard to the general principle, that we must use only such words as the English use, let me repeat, that the restriction is, in the nature of the thing, impracticable, and the demand that we should observe it, is as improper as it is arrogant.  Equally impertinent is it to ridicule us for retaining the use of genuine English words, because they happen to be obsolete in London, or in the higher circles of life.  There are many instances in which we retain the genuine use of words, and the genuine English pronunciation, which they have corrupted; in pronunciation they have introduced more corruptions, within half a century, than were evwer before introduced in five centuries, not even excepting the periods of conquest.  Many of these changes in England are attributable to fals principles, introduced into popular elementary books written by mere sciolists in language, and diffused by the instrumentality of the stage — that prolific parent of corruption.  Let the English remove the beam from their own eye, before they attempt to pull the mote from ours; and before they laugh at our vulgar keow, geown, neow, let them discard their polite keind, and geuide; a fault precisely similar in origin, and equally a perversion of genuine English pronunciation.

I left college with the same veneration for English writers and the same confidence in their opinions, which most of my countrymen now possess, and I adopted their errors without examination.  After many years of research, I am compelled to withdraw much of that confidence, and to look with astonishment upon the errors and false principles which they have propagated; some of them of far more consequence than any which have been mentioned in the preceding remarks.  I wish to be on good terms with the English — it is my interest and the interest of my fellow-citizens to treat them as friends and brethren.  But I will be neither frowned nor ridiculed into error, and a servile imitation of practices which I know or believe to be corrupt.  I will examine subjects for myself, and endeavor to find the truth, and to defend it, whether it accords with English opinions or not.  If I must measure swords with their travellers and their reviewers, on the subject under consideration, I shall not decline the combat.   There is nothing which, in my opinion, so debases the genius and character of my countrymen as the implicit confidence they place in English authors, and their unhesitating submission to their opinion, their derision, and their frowns.  But I trust the time will come, when the English will be convinced that the intellectual faculties of their descendants have not degenerated in America; and that we can contend with them in LETTERS, with as much success, as upon the OCEAN.

I am not ignorant, Sir, of the narrowness of the sphere which I now occupy.  Secluded, in a great measure, from the world, with small means, and no adventitious aids from men of science; with little patronage to extend my influence, and powerful enmities to circumscribe it; what can my efforts avail in attempting to counteract a current of opinion?  Yet I am not accustomed to despondence.  I have contributed, in a small degree, to the instruction of at least four millions of the rising generation; and it is not unreasonable to expect, that a few seeds of improvement, planted by my hand, may germinate, and grow and ripen into valuable fruit, when my remains shall be mingled with the dust.

 

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Filed under 1810's, Dictionaries, Language, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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