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Dictionaries and national identity

The Merriam-Webster's dictionary and how words shape nationalism and politics.

“To diffuse an uniformity and purity of language in America, to destroy the provincial prejudices that originate in the trifling differences of dialect,” wrote Webster in the preface of the speller, “is the most ardent wish of the author.” By capturing language not as it was written in England but as it was spoken in the U.S., Webster hoped to lay the foundation for a uniform American speech that could supersede European linguistic traditions. Where other instructional texts might capture existing modes of speech, he sought to elevate a new way of speaking, and in some sections the speller reads more like a political treatise than a children’s schoolbook.

Webster’s motivations were in part commercial—the schoolteacher-turned-lexicographer needed cash—but they were also undeniably political. He longed to give the American public a language they could call their own. The spellings that Webster promoted have now become hallmarks of American English, including dropping the letter u in words like color, removing the k from mimic, and changing words like centre to center.

A memory: my high school classmate Willy L., fan of the late Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, referred to her as one of the smartest women to walk this earth, citing her greatest achievement--the "Miriam-Webster's" dictionary.

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