Noah Webster

October 16
Anniversary of the birth of Noah Webster

from the article by Steve T. Bett

Noah Webster (1758-1843), along with his contemporary Ben Franklin, advocated simplified spelling, championed "American spelling," and added such words as "skunk," "squash," "hickory," "lengthy," and "chowder" to the lexicon.

His early success in 1782 with the blue-backed spelling book earned him a steady income and the wherewithal to devote his life to the first American dictionary, published in 1806. A second enlarged edition with less radical, simplified spellings was published in 1828.

Noah started writing the first American dictionary at the age of 43, which took him over 27 years to write. He felt that Americans in different parts of the country spelled, pronounced, and used words differently but thought that all Americans should speak the same way. He also thought that Americans should not speak and spell just like the English. In a show of patriotism typical of the early years of the new republic of the United States, Webster wanted a dictionary to record the English language as spoken on this side of the Atlantic. This was the angle that permitted Webster to throw in a few streamlined spellings of words and deviate from the standards set by Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary.

Webster wanted the American language to be somewhat uniform, easy, and though he ultimately had to abandon Ben Franklin's idea of changing the spelling of 'tongue' to 'tung' and women to 'wimmen,' the lexicographer prevailed with many simplified spellings that Americans use to this day.

It is thanks to Webster that Americans have 'honor' instead of 'honour,' 'music' instead of 'musick' and 'plow' instead of 'plough.'

He also changed 'theatre' and 'centre' to the more sensible 'theater' and 'center.' Nevertheless, Webster realized that language, no matter how deplored, is irreversible, and that casual street words mingle in everyday conversation and never leave.

Webster worked out a system of diacritics to supply a guide to pronunciation and gave rules for pronunciation, hoping at best to partially standardize American speech, or at least avoid the worst excesses in England of class divisions and incomprehensible regional patois.

In 1828, at the age of 70, Noah had readied the enlarged version of his original dictionary. His dictionary had 70,000 words and he had added, by this time, 12,000 words that had never been previously included in any dictionary of the language. Complete with definitions, it was considered better than Samuel Johnson's 1755 English masterpiece in scope and authority. While highly praised, at $20 it was much too costly for most American households. In 1843, two years before his death, Webster tried a second printing at $15.


Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758, in Hartford. Noah's was an average colonial family. His father farmed and worked as a weaver. His mother worked at home. Noah and his two brothers, Charles and Abraham, helped their father with the farm work. Noah's sisters, Mercy and Jerusha, worked with their mother to keep house and to make food and clothing for the family.

Few people went to college, but Noah loved to learn so his parents let him go to Yale, Connecticut's only college. He left for New Haven in 1774, when he was 16. Noah's years at Yale coincided with the Revolutionary War, when tough times were causing many food shortages.

Noah graduated in 1778 and wanted to study law, but his parents could not afford to give him more money for school. To earn a living, Noah taught school in Glastonbury, Hartford and West Hartford and then later studied law.

Noah did not like American schools. Sometimes 70 children of all ages were crammed into one-room schoolhouses with no desks, poor books, and untrained teachers. While their books came from England, Noah thought that Americans should learn from American books and so, in 1783, wrote his own textbook: A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Most people called it the "Blue-backed Speller" because of its blue cover. For 100 years, Noah's book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time.

In 1789, Noah married Rebecca Greenleaf. They had eight children. The Websters lived in New Haven, then moved to Amherst, MA where Noah helped to start Amherst College.

In later life, Webster was critical of the politics of self-aggrandizement. He clearly set himself with the founders who believed that if a man was dependent financially on someone, he could not serve the public good, but would only be concerned about his dependent relationship. It was only a man who had no economic interests and sought no economic advantage who could serve well.

Noah accomplished many things in his life. He worked for copyright laws, wrote textbooks, Americanized the English language, and edited magazines. When Noah Webster died in 1843 he was considered an American hero.