HARTFORD —— The man strolled into the Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School dressed impeccably in a frock coat, fine vest, white breeches and gentleman's stockings.
The pep in his step was encouraging.
"I'm almost 253 years old," said America's speller — er, Chris Dobbs, the director of the Noah Webster House in colonial costume Thursday.
Dobbs then rode in an elevator before striding in his black buckled shoes to a fourth-grade classroom: "Good morning, scholars!"
It's a special occasion on Cone Street when the children get to see their West End school's namesake. Thursday included an early celebration of Webster's birthday on Sunday, plus guest readers for Literacy Day and a Constitution Day assembly that afternoon in which students recited the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.
Born on Oct. 16, 1758, in the West Division of Hartford — today's West Hartford — the lawyer, educator, textbook master, Federalist, father of eight and friend of Benjamin Franklin made an appearance of sorts to chat about his life.
Webster published "A Grammatical Institute of the English Language" in 1783, nicknamed "The Blue Backed Speller" due to its sky-blue cover, because he was unhappy with the educational system and what he felt were crummy textbooks from England that hailed King George even after the Revolutionary War.
Later, determined to rid British style from American language, Webster labored on a tome that presented the lexicon of the new republic, Dobbs told the students.
In 1828, at age 70, Webster's "American Dictionary of the English Language" was published in two volumes after he spent more than two decades and learned 26 languages on his way to defining more than 65,000 words, including New England realities such as "skunk" and "chowder." The dictionary sold for $20 at the time — "fairly pricey, if you can imagine," Dobbs said.
"It was my life accomplishment," said Dobbs as Webster, patting a copy of the bulky book before digressing into a critique of President Andrew Jackson as a "deplorable dinner guest" for serving French cuisine to him, an American. Harumph!
"Mr. Webster, when you were searching for words and definitions, how did you find all of them?" 9-year-old Ayana Encarnacion of Hartford asked a minute later.
"I traveled around the young United States — New York, Philadelphia, I tapped into Yale's resources quite a bit," said Dobbs' Webster. "Then I found I had exhausted the resources here in the states and had to travel to Europe. ... Paris at the time had some of the best libraries across the globe, so I went there and studied and found some older dictionaries that had come before mine."
"And I listened to people and read quite a bit," he said. "Because I understood that language is constantly changing."
Among Webster's spelling revisions were dropping the "k" from what used to be "musick," converting "gaol" to "jail" and eliminating the "u" from "honour."
"Sir, Mr. Webster, were there any words that were not in the dictionary?" inquired Chad Rookwood, 9, from East Hartford.
"I took out some of these, shall we say, vulgar words," the man replied. "The words I included were appropriate for mixed company, … Slangs often did not show up."
Principal Dee Cole wanted to know when Webster got his bug for learning.
"About their age," Dobbs said. Half of the classroom children were from Hartford, the rest from surrounding cities and towns. All attend one of the top pre-K to Grade 8 magnet schools in the area.
"How many students feel exactly like Noah Webster?" Cole asked, as all the kids shot up their hands.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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