From a letter to Noah Webster. Franklin quit school at the age of ten and became an apprentice printer two years later. He settled in Philadelphia in 1726, printing the state’s currency in 1730 and beginning to publish Poor Richard’s almanac in 1732. Among other things, Franklin invented the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the odometer. He wrote this letter to Webster—who published An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828—less than four months before he died at the age of eighty-four in 1790.
I received some time since your Dissertations on the English Language. The book was not accompanied by any letter or message, informing me to whom I am obliged for it, but I suppose it is to yourself. It is an excellent work and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing. Please to accept my thanks for the great honor you have done me in its dedication. I ought to have made this acknowledgment sooner, but much indisposition prevented me.
I cannot but applaud your zeal for preserving the purity of our language, both in its expressions and pronunciation, and in correcting the popular errors several of our states are continually falling into with respect to both. Give me leave to mention some of them, though possibly they may have already occurred to you. I wish, however, in some future publication of yours, you would set a discountenancing mark upon them. The first I remember is the word “improved.” When I left New England in the year 1723, this word had never been used among us, as far as I know, but in the sense of ameliorated or made better, except once in a very old book of Dr. Mather’s, entitled Remarkable Providences. As that eminent man wrote a very obscure hand, I remember that when I read that word in his book, used instead of the word “imployed,” I conjectured it was an error of the printer, who had mistaken a too short “l” in the writing for an “r,” and a “y” with too short a tail for a “v”; whereby “imployed” was converted into “improved.”
But when I returned to Boston, in 1733, I found this change had obtained favor and was then become common, for I met with it often in perusing the newspapers, where it frequently made an appearance rather ridiculous. Such, for instance, as the advertisement of a country house to be sold, which had been many years improved as a tavern; and, in the character of a deceased country gentleman, that he had been for more than thirty years improved as a justice of the peace. This use of the word “improved” is peculiar to New England, and not to be met with among any other speakers of English, either on this or the other side of the water.
Oil study of Gassed, by John Singer Sargent, 1918–1919. © Christie’s Images, The Bridgeman Art Library International.
During my late absence in France, I find that several other new words have been introduced into our parliamentary language; for example, I find a verb formed from the substantive “notice”: “I should not have noticed this, were it not that the gentleman,” etc. Also another verb from the substantive “advocate”: “The gentleman who advocates or has advocated that motion,” etc. Another from the substantive “progress,” the most awkward and abominable of the three: “The committee, having progressed, resolved to adjourn.” The word “opposed,” though not a new word, I find used in a new manner, as, “The gentlemen who are opposed to this measure, to which I have also myself always been opposed.” If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations, you will use your authority in reprobating them.
The Latin language, long the vehicle used in distributing knowledge among the different nations of Europe, is daily more and more neglected, and one of the modern tongues, viz., the French, seems in point of universality to have supplied its place. It is spoken in all the courts of Europe, and most of the literati, those even who do not speak it, have acquired knowledge enough of it to enable them easily to read the books that are written in it. This gives a considerable advantage to that nation; it enables its authors to inculcate and spread throughout other nations such sentiments and opinions on important points, as are most conducive to its interests, or which may contribute to its reputation by promoting the common interests of mankind. It is perhaps owing to its being written in French that Voltaire’s treatise on Toleration has had so sudden and so great an effect on the bigotry of Europe, as almost entirely to disarm it. The general use of the French language has likewise a very advantageous effect on the profits of the bookselling branch of commerce, it being well-known that the more copies can be sold that are struck off from one composition of types, the profits increase in a much greater proportion than they do in making a great number of pieces in any other kind of manufacture. And at present there is no capital town in Europe without a French bookseller’s shop corresponding with Paris.
Our English bids fair to obtain the second place. The great body of excellent printed sermons in our language and the freedom of our writings on political subjects have induced a number of divines of different sects and nations, as well as gentlemen concerned in public affairs, to study it—so far at least as to read it. And if we were to endeavor the facilitating its progress, the study of our tongue might become much more general. Those who have employed some parts of their time in learning a new language have frequently observed that, while their acquaintance with it was imperfect, difficulties small in themselves operated as great ones in obstructing their progress. A book, for example, ill-printed, or a pronunciation in speaking, not well-articulated, would render a sentence unintelligible; which, from a clear print or a distinct speaker, would have been immediately comprehended. If therefore we would have the benefit of seeing our language more generally known among mankind, we should endeavor to remove all the difficulties, however small, that discourage the learning it.