J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Colonial Boston Vocabulary: "improved"

To start off a little series of entries about the language of Revolutionary Boston, I'll quote a letter from one of the town's departed sons, Benjamin Franklin, to future lexicographer Noah Webster on 26 Dec 1789.

Webster was just starting his career in printing and publishing, and had contacted the older man about his early efforts to regularize American style. Franklin noted changes in how people spoke, wrote, and set type, differences between England and America and differences between the new U.S. of A. and the culture he remembered from his youth. From Philadelphia he wrote:

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 [17]23, 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. [Increase] 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 that 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 Favour, 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 has been many years improved as a Tavern; and, in the Character of a deceased Country Gentleman, that he had been for more than 30 Years improved as a Justice-of-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.
Other American neologisms or new usages that Franklin had noted after returning from France were the verbs notice, advocate, and progress. He disliked how Printers were no longer using capital Letters to designate each Noun in a Sentence. And he thought questions should begin with an upside-down question mark, as in Spanish, so readers would know how to inflect the words. ¿Should we have done that in 1789?


Anonymous said...


I am Joe Enge, the teacher in question regarding the spinning of social studies. Much of the facts cited are accurate, which is far more than I can say for some other commentaries. For this, I applaud the article. The connection of these facts is open to being interpreted as spin or valid professional issues and concerns.

I can understand how difficult it is for someone outside of the controversy to weigh in on it, even with accurate information. Was it spin or valid professional concerns? I think it's important to differentiate between the district "guidelines" and the Nevada state history "standards" before any attempt at discussing the matter.

I was on the committee that wrote the Nevada state history standards back in 1997. I discovered a major disconnect between the Carson City School District "guidelines" and the state standards when I started teaching history at my high school. I pointed out how the district's approach was out of alignment and was bull headed in following the state standards.

For reference, I was in another school district when I helped write the state standards and went overseas before coming to Carson High School and seeing their "creative" teaching of history.

I honestly thought this simple issue would be resolved once they cross checked the state standards. Needless to say, that was not the case. Few, if any who have opined about the controversy ever bothered to check the state standards I cited. I think that's the saddest commentary on the whole matter.

As people and the media discussed spin versus valid issues, an alignment of power took place. The district painted itself into a corner by denial. They successfully distracted people from the state standards, ignored them themselves, and tried to hint other issues were in play.

Should a teacher contradict the state standards when the district guidelines are contradictory? The state issues our license, but the district evaluates and pays us. It seems the state doesn't even care, so the smart play would be to "play ball" with the district.

It is well over a year since the issue became public. I left teaching and was elected to the same school board by the citizens who know me or have had their children in my class. My assertions regarding the variance between the state standards and the district guidelines have yet to be proven wrong. I personally invite any and all to try.

I wish I was wrong so that the personal stand, sacrifice and struggle would not have been necessary. Public cynicism can be healthy, but not to the point of blindness. Cynicism is not the problem if one can articulate and prove their position. Apathy regarding the teaching of history is the true problem we face.

Joe Enge

J. L. Bell said...

Joe Enge's comment above refers to this posting.