Today is the birthday of American lexicographer, textbook pioneer, and educational reformer Noah Webster (1758) (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut. His father was a farmer, captain of the town’s militia, and a deacon at the local Congregational church. His parents valued education and Webster’s mother taught all the children spelling, mathematics, and music. He began attending school at six, but the experience was dreadful. His one-room schoolhouse was dilapidated, and he later called the teachers “dregs of humanity.” That experience influenced his later desire to reform childhood education.
After graduating from Yale College, he wandered for a bit, unsure of what to do. He later said, “A liberal arts education disqualifies a man for business.” He taught school for a time, but the pay was low and the conditions horrible, so he quit to read law. There were no law schools in those days, so a student lived with a lawyer, used their books, and “read law” with the lawyer. He quit that too, for a time, and became very depressed. He eventually resumed his studies and passed the bar in 1781.
It was after a failed romance that Webster turned to literary work. An ardent Federalist, he said, “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms, and it is not impossible but a person of my youth may have some influence in exciting a spirit of literary industry.” Webster was appalled that American schoolchildren were using British spellers and grammars, so he started to write his own. A Grammatical Institute of the English Language became a three-volume set that included a speller (1783), a grammar (1784) and a reader (1785). Some of Webster’s innovations included changing the re to er in words like “center.” He also tried to change tongue back to its original spelling, which was tung, but that wasn’t popular, so he dropped it. People called the book the “Blue-backed Speller” because of its blue cover. It was so concise and easy that it became the standard for the next 100 years, and by 1890 had sold over 60 million copies. Webster received a half-cent royalty on each copy. The Blue-backed Speller also helped inspire contests that we now know as “spelling bees.”
Webster was concerned by the fact that Americans spoke and used words differently from the English, and that people who lived in different parts of American needed to speak and spell the same way. In 1807, he began compiling An American Dictionary of the English Language, which took him 28 years to complete. It was finally published in 1828. He learned 28 languages, including Sanskrit, Persian, and Gothic, in order to master the etymology of some words. The dictionary contained over 70,000 words. Some people thought his choices were vulgar and too radical, but poet Emily Dickinson adored the dictionary and called it her “companion.” Though he sold only 2,500 copies at first, the dictionary eventually became the standard lexicon for America. After Webster’s death, brothers George and Charles Merriam acquired the rights to the dictionary, which became known as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Noah Webster was responsible for establishing copyright laws and co-founding Amherst College.