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Vital Signs

The Devil and Noah Webster

Within the Detroit metropolitan area, a short drive from gutted buildings and abandoned neighborhoods, one can step into a pre-industrial America, complete with working farms, horse-drawn carriages, and the charming homes of a now-vanished elite.  Late in life, Henry Ford carefully refabricated the rural America he had helped to destroy in a place called Greenfield Village.  A steam locomotive chugs around the perimeter, and the workshops of Edison and the Wright brothers hint of the world to come, but it remains a place of repose, typified by the 17th-century Cotswold cottage Ford brought from England and reassembled.  Yet in one of these houses, an elegant colonial from New Haven, a man dreamt of something far more radical than any of Edison’s inventions: manipulating language in order to erase a people’s memory.  His name was Noah Webster.

It may seem unfair to castigate the man who labored for a quarter-century over some 75,000 definitions to create An American Dictionary of the English Language.  Less familiar than the other early leaders of the nascent federal government, Webster has nonetheless received the reverence due a secular saint.  As is typical in historical houses, each item has been placed to suggest that the old lexicographer could walk in at any time to resume his noble work.  A tour guide sings the praises of Saint Webster:...

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