Noah Webster became a legendary figure in 19th century American by devoting himself to two lofty goals, the standardization of the English language and the reform of the American educational system. In the late 1700s he first gained attention by publishing a “speller” for schoolchildren which became extremely influential.
And in 1828 he published the result of 25 years of labor, An American Dictionary of the English Language. The name Webster became synonymous with dictionaries.
Webster’s 1828 dictionary included more than 70,000 entries, which surpassed any earlier dictionary. And the research he had done was remarkable. He learned a number of other languages so he could research the words which formed American English.
By standardizing the spelling of many words, Webster created distinctly American spellings which differed from British counterparts. And Webster included many words with distinctly American origins.
The dictionary and its innovations came to be accepted. Webster published several editions of it, including an abridged version designed for “primary schools and the counting house.” After Webster’s death in 1843, the rights to keep publishing the dictionary were purchased by Massachusetts booksellers George and Charles Merriam.
Life of Noah Webster
Noah Webster was born October 16, 1758, in West Hartford, Connecticut. His family owned a small farm, and Noah was one of five children. As a child he did farm work and received some lessons as time permitted, which was typical of New England childhoods of the time.
As he exhibited a great interest in reading and learning, Webster was sent to study with a minister who tutored him and prepared him to attend college. Webster entered Yale College in 1774, just as the American Revolution was about to break out.
The events of the Revolutionary period had a profound effect on Webster. He developed a fierce pride in America, and the concept of America as independent from Britain influenced his later work.
Following his college years, Webster had trouble finding his way. He developed a reputation for being arrogant and unable to get along well with people. And he made a meager living as a schoolteacher.
His years in the classroom gave him ideas about educational reform, and he began to devote himself to writing instructional books which incorporated these new concepts. While living and teaching in Goshen, New York, Webster wrote a book which not only imparted lessons on spelling and grammar but sought to create an American cultural identity. In Webster’s mind, America should cut ties with Britain which still existed as Americans tended to learn language and other things from British books and teachers.
In 1783 Webster published his first book as A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, which became known, in a 1787 edition, as The American Speller. The book was small, only 119 pages, but it had a great influence and over the span of many years it became one of the best-selling books in history.
With The American Speller Webster simplified spelling for students while also imparting lessons designed to set America apart from the rest of the world. Webster lectured on his educational reform ideas, and tried to launch a magazine, which was unsuccessful.
His intelligence and his writing had made him a prominent figure, and he came to know many influential figures of the day, including George Washington and James Madison. Yet his odd personality also made him a difficult man for many to like.
Despite his quirks, he married in 1789 and he and his wife Rebecca had eight children, and by all accounts Webster was a very devoted husband and father.
Work on the Dictionary
Webster began working on his monumental dictionary in the first decade of the 19th century. He immersed himself in research, working countless hours researching the roots of words. He possessed dictionaries from at least 20 languages. And sitting in an office chair fitted with wheels, he would roll along a large table, checking definitions and making notes.
The work was arduous, and Webster complained of pain from writing, what today would likely be diagnosed as repetitive stress injuries. When the dictionary was finally published it contained more definitions than the dictionary which had been published in England by Samuel Johnson years earlier.
Advertisements to subscribe to the dictionary appeared in American newspapers in 1828, and the book was published near the end of the year.
Influence of Webster’s Dictionary
Initial reactions to the dictionary varied. Some critics mocked him for trying to standardize spelling. But in general the book was treated with respect. And Webster’s name would always be associated with dictionaries.
By the middle of the 1800s the phrase “according to Webster’s” had entered the language.
In the 1830s Webster continued to edit the dictionary for later editions as well as creating abridged versions which sold well to students and business people. He continued to write until about 1840, when he essentially retired. He spend the last few years of his life quietly with his family, and died at the age of 84 on May 28, 1843.