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
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.