Webster, Noah (1758–1843)
WEBSTER, NOAH (1758–1843)
The first person to write a dictionary of American English and permanently alter the spelling of American English, Noah Webster through his spelling book taught millions of American children to read for the first half-century of the republic and millions more to spell for the following half-century.
Born a farmer's son in what is now West Hartford, Connecticut, Webster attended Yale College from 1774 to 1778, during the Revolutionary War. After graduating, he taught at Connecticut district schools before studying for the bar. The dismal conditions of these schools, combined with his patriotism and a search for self-identity, inspired him to compose three schoolbooks that, he believed, would unify the new nation through speaking and writing a common language. (Previously, almost all American schoolbooks had been reprints of imported British ones.) Part one of Webster's A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, a spelling book, was printed in 1783; part two, a grammar, in 1784; part three, a reader (a compilation of essays and poetry for children who could already read), in 1785. Webster then left on an eighteen-month tour south to promote his books and register them for state copyright, in the absence of national copyright legislation. In 1787 he revised the Grammatical Institute, retitling his speller the American Spelling Book and his reader An American Selection of Lessons.
He began editing periodicals in New York: the American Magazine for one year (1788–1789) and the pro-federalist American Minerva (1793–1798). Between the two came his marriage to Rebecca Greenleaf in 1789, the publication of various collections of essays, and an introduction to his reader, the Little Reader's Assistant (1790). In 1798 he retreated from politics and periodicals to New Haven and helped open a private school there.
After publishing a commercially unsuccessful history of epidemics, Webster began writing schoolbooks with renewed vigor, issuing the first three volumes of Elements of Useful Knowledge (1802–1806). He had obtained national copyright protection for his speller in 1790, when the first national copyright law was passed, a law that granted protection for fourteen-year periods. However, the income from his speller, for which he negotiated a penny a copy in 1804 (the date of his first copyright renewal), could not support his large family, and in 1812 he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, to economize. He was instrumental there in founding Amherst Academy, now Amherst College. In 1816 Webster sold the entire rights to the American Spelling Book for its third copyright period, 1818 to 1832, to Hudson and Company of Hartford, Connecticut, in order to work solely on his major dictionary. In 1824, with his son William to aid him, he voyaged to Europe to complete it. Titled An American Dictionary of the English Language, it was published in New York in 1828. A year later, Webster produced the final revision of his speller, the Elementary Spelling Book, in conjunction with Aaron Ely, a New York educator. From then until his death in 1843 Webster issued several other schoolbooks and a bowdlerized edition of the Bible. The latter was the fruit of a conversion experience to fundamentalist Christianity in 1807.
One of Webster's most important and lasting contributions to American English was to change, for the better, the spellings of certain groups of words from their British spelling. He used the principle of uniformity to justify his alterations, arguing that words that were alike, such as nouns and their derivatives, should be spelled alike. He therefore transformed words such as honour to honor (compare honorific ), musick to music (compare musical )–the latter a change now adopted by the British–defence to defense (compare defensive ) and centre to center. This last alteration actually violated his own principle–compare central –but brought centre and congruent words into conformity with numerous other words ending -er. Webster also respelled many anomalous British spellings, writing gaol as jail, and plough as plow. Earlier, in works such as the Little Reader's Assistant, Webster had gone much further with his reforms, with spellings such as yung and nabor. However, these had evoked so much ridicule that he soon abandoned them. His ability to introduce his major classes of spelling reform into his spellers and dictionaries was crucial to their success, as they became imprinted on the minds of each new generation.
Webster's second major contribution to American education was in the field of lexicography. Indeed, the word Webster is still virtually synonymous with dictionary. Although Webster issued a small stopgap dictionary, his Compendious Dictionary, in 1806, his masterpiece was his An American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828, a two-volume work of more than 70,000 entries and the first truly American dictionary. In it, Webster eliminated words that were not useful to Americans, such as words associated with coats of arms, and included those unique to the United States, like squash and skunk.
Webster was not equally successful in all aspects of his dictionary. By modern standards, his etymologies are flawed. His conversion to fundamentalist Christianity had led him to believe in one original language as the progenitor of all the rest, and his etymologies were compromised by his efforts to fit all words into this framework. On the other hand, he brought a new approach to definitions, which were more accurate, comprehensive, and logically organized than in any previous dictionary. His orthography has become standard American orthography. His indication of pronunciations by the use of diacritical marks was also innovative; lexicographers still use similar markings in the early twenty-first century.
Perfecting the Spelling Book for Reading Instruction
Important as Webster's lexicographical work was, his contributions to the spelling book tradition were even more significant. His spellers enjoyed vastly greater popularity than any other of his works. His original speller, the first part of the Institute (1783), sold out its first edition of 5,000 copies within a few months. By 1804 more than a million copies of its revision, the American Spelling Book of 1787, had been printed, most of them in Hartford and Boston. From 1804 to 1818 Webster's account books document the sales of licenses of another 3,223,000 copies. Between 1818 and 1832, the third copyright period, an estimated 3 million copies were printed. Even higher numbers are documented for Webster's completely revamped version, the Elementary Spelling Book of 1829, which he published in response to what he perceived as the slipping sales of the American Spelling Book under Hudson and Company. Between 1829, the Elementary's first publication, and 1843, the year of Webster's death, almost 3,868,000 copies were licensed for sale. Over all its editions, a conservative estimate puts the total sales of the speller at 70 million.
The national popularity and huge sales of Webster's spelling books can only be understood if it is appreciated that they were books designed primarily to teach children to read, and only secondarily to spell, through the alphabet method of reading instruction. The underlying assumption of all spelling books was that "reading" (defined as oral, not silent, reading) was a matter of pronouncing words, spelled aloud syllable by syllable, and that once a word was pronounced correctly, comprehension would follow. Webster's contribution to the spelling book tradition was to indicate how words should be pronounced. He introduced a system of numerical superscripts to indicate vowel pronunciation and altered the syllabification of words to their present format (si-ster now became sis-ter ). In so doing, he improved significantly on his model and rival, A New Guide to the English Tongue (1740) by the British Thomas Dilworth. In his final revision, the Elementary of 1829, Webster replaced the superscripts with diacritical marks very similar to those he had used in his American Dictionary a year earlier–another innovation.
A fourth contribution to education by Webster was to originate works that others would improve upon. He had a very large view of American education: He attempted to influence school content, "beginning with children & ending with men" (Monaghan, p. 69) who would progress from the Webster spelling book through other subjects up to the Webster dictionaries. Webster's grammar of 1784 was swiftly superseded by Lindley Murray's grammar, and his revised reader, An American Selection, was also overtaken, first by Caleb Bingham's American Preceptor and later by Murray's English Reader. (The latter would appear in some 350 editions by 1840.) Webster's school dictionaries, his four-volume Elements of Useful Knowledge (1802, 1804, 1806, 1812), his Biography, for the Use of Schools (1830), his History of the United States (1832), and his Manual of Useful Studies (1839) introduced many topics that would later evolve into school staples: geography and history of the United States and elsewhere and (in a primitive form in the fourth volume of the Elements ) biology.
The "First" American Author
Webster was innovative in a fifth arena: he was the earliest American author to make a living from his own publications. He saw as a young man that there was money to be made from a schoolbook and sought protection for his first spelling book even before it was in print and before any state had yet passed laws protecting intellectual property. Webster has become known as the "father of copyright," and indeed he remained active in promoting copyright protection throughout his life. He might with more justice be termed the "father of royalties," as he was one of the first to exact payment from his publishers according to the number of books they printed or that he licensed to them.
Webster's ability to live from the proceeds of the spelling book was aided by another factor: his extraordinary promotion of his own books. He was the first, but certainly not the last, American author to involve himself deeply in the publishing and promotional aspects of his books. His activities prefigure almost all aspects of modern publishing. His first concern, particularly for part one of the Institute and later for the Elementary Spelling Book, was with the quality of the printed product. He monitored every printer himself, first across New England and then in the middle and southern states. He fussed over every internal detail of the product in an effort to make all his editions uniform across publishers: the spelling, the paper, the standing type. He revised and corrected each edition unceasingly.
His second concern was with promotion. No aspect of it escaped him. As was common practice at the time, he sought recommendations. (Both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington turned him down.) He went on promotional tours, as he did for the Institute in 1785. He gave lectures that brought him to the public's attention; he advertised the series and, when possible, planted "notices" (equivalent to press releases) in local newspapers; he donated his books to colleges and schools; he even gave portions of his proceeds to worthy causes. He was originally his own best agent, and used paid agents only late in his life. Above all, Webster kept an eye out for competitors and did not hesitate to launch stinging attacks, often in newspapers, on his rivals. In much of this, for better or worse, he foreshadowed modern practice.
The view of reading instruction incorporated in Webster's spellers–as systematic, sequential, letter-based, and learned by rote–would not be challenged until the 1820s. The charge brought against all spelling books hinged on the meaninglessness to the child of much of the spelling book's content. Reformers deplored the long lists of syllabified words that children had to encounter before they met sustained reading passages. By the late 1830s the success of the new-style readers, those like the Eclectic series originally authored by William Holmes McGuffey, were rendering spelling books obsolete as reading instructional texts.
Yet the sales of Webster's Elementary Spelling Book, now dubbed affectionately the "blue-back speller" or just "ole blue-back," continued to increase. By 1859, according to Appleton and Company of New York, the firm was printing the speller at the rate of a million and one-half copies per year. For the blue-back speller still had an educational role to play: It lived on for the rest of the century as a spelling instructional text and as the favorite arbiter at spelling bees in and out of school.
See also: Curriculum, School; Reading, subentry on Teaching of; Spelling, Teaching of.
Monaghan, E. Jennifer. 1983. A Common Heritage: Noah Webster's Blue-Back Speller. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.
Rollins, Richard M. 1980. The Long Journey of Noah Webster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Rollins, Richard M., ed. 1989. The Autobiographies of Noah Webster: From the Letters and Essays, Memoir, and Diary. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Skeel, Emily Ellsworth Ford. 1971. A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster (1958), ed. Edwin H. Carpenter Jr. New York: New York Public Library and Arno.
Warfel, Harry R., ed. 1953. The Letters of Noah Webster. New York: Library.
Warfel, Harry R. 1966. Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America. New York: Octagon.
Webster, Noah. 1783. A Grammatical Institute of the English Language …, Part I. Hartford, CT: Hudson and Goodwin.
Webster, Noah. 1787a. An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, Calculated to Improve the Minds and Refine the Taste of Youth …, 3rd edition. Philadelphia: Young and M'Cullough.
Webster, Noah. 1787b. The American Spelling Book Containing, an Easy Standard of Pronunciation. Being the First Part of a Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Philadelphia: Young and M'Cullough.
Webster, Noah. 1790. The Little Reader's Assistant …. Hartford, CT: Elisha Babcock.
Webster, Noah, to Samuel L. Mitchell, June 29, 1807.
Webster, Noah. 1828. An American Dictionary of the English Language …, 2 vols. New York: S[herman] Converse.
Webster, Noah. 1829. The Elementary Spelling Book; Being an Improvement on the American Spelling Book. Middletown, CT: Niles.
E. Jennifer Monaghan
Noah Webster and American Cultural Independence
Noah Webster and American Cultural Independence
Schoolmaster . Noah Webster was graduated from Yale College in 1778, and while he prepared himself for a career in law, he supported himself by teaching school.
Webster was admitted to the bar in 1781, but he would practice law only briefly, devoting his real energy to a career in education. As a schoolteacher Webster noted how difficult it was for children to learn spelling. “It is now the work of years for children to learn to spell; and after all, the business is rarely accomplished. A few men, who are bred to some business that requires constant … writing, finally learn to spell most words without hesitation,” but most people “make mistakes, whenever they take up a pen,” and would “never attempt to write a letter, without frequently consulting a dictionary.”
Barriers. A student’s problem with spelling also made for difficulty in pronunciation. Foreigners found it difficult to pronounce English words, as the spelling and pronunciation often varied; Americans living in different areas spoke much differently, and these regional dialects Webster saw as warning signs for a country not fully united. Unless Americans all spoke the same language and could understand one another fully, trouble was ahead.
Solution. Noah Webster had a practical solution to this problem of spelling. First, he would eliminate all silent letters. For instance, the “a” in “bread” and the “gh” in “night” and “eight” could be dropped. Second, for words such as “mean” and “near” and “speak,” he would substitute an “e” for the “a,” making them read “meen,” “neer,” and “speek.” This would bring their spelling into line with their pronunciation. Finally, for vowels with either long or short pronunciations, Webster would add a small stroke to indicate the difference. These changes would make it easier both to write and to learn the language “and would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.”
Uniformity. Webster had practical as well as ideological reasons for proposing this simplicity. The most practical reason was that the reform would make it easier to learn the language, and with fewer letters books and newspapers could be shorter, thus saving paper and allowing more space for expressing ideas. (Webster estimated that his reform would eliminate one letter out of every sixteen or eighteen and thus would save one page out of every sixteen or eighteen, cutting ten pages from a 180-page book.) More importantly, Webster hoped these changes would make the pronunciation of the language as uniform as the spelling in books. This would make all Americans speak the same language and eliminate potentially dangerous regional and class differences in the spoken language, replacing prejudice and animosity with “mutual affection and respect.”
Independence. This change would foster not only unity but also national independence. It would be necessary for all books to be printed in America, rather than England, and so Americans could become intellectually as well as politically independent. A national language, Webster wrote, “is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national.… However they may boast of Independence, … yet their opinions are not sufficiently independent; an astonishing respect for the arts and literature of their parent country, and a blind imitation of its manners, are still prevalent among the Americans. Thus an habitual respect for another country, deserved indeed and once laudable, turns their attention from their own interests, and prevents their respecting themselves.”
A Grammatical Institute. Webster’s reform proposal was enthusiastically endorsed by Benjamin Franklin, who had proposed a similar measure some years earlier. Webster was unsuccessful, though, in fully purging English of silent letters and making for uniform pronunciation. His spelling book, A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language (1783), had much more success in creating a national system of education. The first edition’s five thousand copies were exhausted within a year, and by 1837 Webster estimated that fifteen million copies had been printed. A Grammatical Institute, or the “blue-backed speller,” replaced Thomas Dilworth’s A New Guide to the English Tongue (1770), written in England and full of the wrong values, Webster believed. His book was for Americans and has been called a literary declaration of independence. In it Webster advised American schoolchildren on proper pronunciation, and if he could not forge a single national dialect, he could try to purge regional variations, advising children not to drop the final “g” in “-ing,” or pronounce “spirit” as “sperei.” He also insisted on pronunciation of “-tion” and “-cion” as one syllable (“-shun”) rather than the traditional two syllables. In 1788 Webster changed the name of his speller to An American Spelling Book.
Part Two . Webster followed his speller with A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1784), which attempted to codify and reform American grammar. Webster, with his experience as a schoolteacher, taught the language as it was spoken rather than teaching grammar through memorization of rules. Webster blasted earlier grammarians for their “stupid opinion” that the English language rested on Latin and that only by learning Latin could people understand the rules of English. Instead, English rested on a Saxon base. Webster advised reform and simplification, but his A Grammatical Institute of the English Language was less popular than his speller.
Other Activities . Webster’s speller was published in Hartford; if Webster did not secure a copyright in every other state, printers outside of Connecticut could sell the book without paying Webster a cent. He visited all thirteen states to secure copyrights; this experience convinced him that the United States needed a uniform copyright law, and to secure this law, which would be the only way to create a national community, the country needed a stronger Constitution. He was a fervent advocate for the Constitution in 1787, writing one of the first pamphlets in its defense. Webster was a staunch Federalist in the 1790s, engaging in political questions as editor of various newspapers and magazines. In the wake of the 1797 yellow fever outbreak he compiled A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases (1799), which sorted through the existing knowledge on the causes of disease. He remained fascinated by the American language, though, and in 1806 published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, a forerunner of his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language. Though Webster failed to simplify American English or to create a single national community, he led the way to America’s cultural independence.
Harry R. Warfel, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (New York: Macmillan, 1936).
Born: October 16, 1758
West Hartford, Connecticut
Died: May 23, 1843
New Haven, Connecticut
Noah Webster, American lexicographer (one who compiles a dictionary), remembered now almost solely as the compiler of a continuously successful dictionary, was for half a century among the more influential and most active literary men in the United States.
Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758, in West Hartford, Connecticut. The fourth son of five children of Noah and Mercy Steele Webster, young Noah showed exceptional scholarly talents as a child, and his father sacrificed much in order that his son would gain the best education available.
In 1774, at age sixteen, Webster entered Yale College, sharing literary ambitions with his classmate Joel Barlow and tutor Timothy Dwight. His college years were interrupted by terms of military service. After his graduation in 1778, Noah began studying law, but because his father could no longer support him, he took a job as a schoolmaster in Hartford, Litchfield, and Sharon, all in Connecticut. Meanwhile, he read widely and studied law. He was admitted to the bar (an association for lawyers) and received his master of arts degree in 1781. Dissatisfied with the British-made textbooks available for teaching, he determined to produce his own. He had, he said, "too much pride to stand indebted to Great Britain for books to learn our children."
Schoolmaster to America
Webster soon developed the first of his long series of American schoolbooks, a speller titled A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I (1783). Known for generations simply as The Blue-back Speller, it was in use for more than a century and sold over seventy million copies. His book's effect on students is said to have been unequaled in the history of American elementary education. Part II of the Grammatical Institute, a grammar, reprinted often under various titles, appeared in 1784. Part III, a reader, in the original 1785 edition included sections from yet-unpublished poetry by Dwight and Barlow. Though the reader had a shorter life and more vigorous competition than other parts of the Institute, it set a patriotic (having to do with the love for one's country) and moralistic (having to do with right and wrong) pattern followed by rival books, some of which were thought to attract attention because they were more religiously orientated. Webster stressed what he called the "art of reading" in later volumes, including two secularized (nonreligious) versions of The New England Primer (1789, 1801), The Little Reader's Assistant (1790), The Elementary Primer (1831), and The Little Franklin (1836).
Webster toured the United States from Maine to Georgia selling his textbooks, convinced that "America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms, " but that to accomplish this she must protect by copyright (the legal right of artistic work) the literary products of her countrymen. He pleaded so effectively that uniform copyright laws were passed early in most of the states, and it was largely through his continuing effort that Congress in 1831 passed a bill which ensured protection to writers. On his travels he also peddled (sold from door to door) his Sketches of American Policy (1785), a vigorous plea on behalf of the Federalists, a then-popular political party that believed in a strong central government. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he paused briefly to teach school and see new editions of his Institute through the press, he published his politically effective An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (1787).
In New York City, Webster established the American Magazine (1787–88), which he hoped might become a national periodical (magazine distributed regularly). In it he pled for American intellectual independence, education for women, and the support of Federalist ideas. Though it survived for only twelve monthly issues, it is remembered as one of the most lively, bravely adventuresome of early American periodicals. He continued as a political journalist with such pamphlets as The Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry (1793), The Revolution in France (1794), and The Rights of Neutral Nations (1802).
But Webster's principal interest became language reform, or improvement. As he set forth his ideas in Dissertations on the English Language (1789), theatre should be spelled theater; machine, masheen; plough, plow; draught, draft. For a time he put forward claims for such reform in his readers and spellers and in his Collection of Essays and Fugitiv [sic] Writings (1790), which encouraged "reezoning," "yung" persons, "reeding," and a "zeel" for "lerning"; but he was too careful a Yankee to allow odd behavior to stand in the way of profit. In The Prompter (1790) he quietly lectured his countrymen in corrective essays written plainly, in a simple and to-the-point style.
After Webster married in 1789, he practiced law in Hartford for four years before returning to New York City to edit the city's first daily newspaper, the American Minerva (1793–98). Tiring of the controversy (open to dispute) brought on by his forthright expression of Federalist opinion, he retired to New Haven, Connecticut, to write A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases (1899) and to put together a volume of Miscellaneous Papers (1802).
From this time on, Webster gave most of his attention to preparing more schoolbooks, including A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language (1807). But he was primarily concerned with assembling A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806); its shorter version, A Dictionary … Compiled for the Use of Common Schools (1807, revised 1817); and finally, in two volumes, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). In range this last surpassed (went beyond) any dictionary of its time. A second edition, "corrected and enlarged" (1841), became known popularly as Webster's Unabridged. Conservative contemporaries (people of the same time or period), alarmed at its unorthodoxies (untraditional) in spelling, usage, and pronunciation and its proud inclusion of Americanisms, dubbed the work as "Noah's Ark." However, after Webster's death the rights were sold in 1847 to George and Charles Merriam, printers in Worcester, Massachusetts; and the dictionary has become, through many revisions, the foundation and defender of effective American lexicography.
Webster's other late writings included A History of the United States (1832), a version of the Bible (1832) cleansed of all words and phrases dangerous to children or "offensive especially to females," and a final Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects (1843). Tall, redheaded, lanky, humorless, he was the butt of many cruel criticisms in his time. Noah Webster died in New Haven on May 23, 1843.
For More Information
Micklethwait, David. Noah Webster and the American Dictionary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.
Moss, Richard J. Noah Webster. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Rollins, Richard M. The Long Journey of Noah Webster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980.
Snyder, K. Alan. Defining Noah Webster. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.
Unger, Harlow G. Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
Noah Webster (1758-1843), American lexicographer, remembered now almost solely as the compiler of a continuously successful dictionary, was for half a century among the more influential and most active literary men in the United States.
Noah Webster was born on Oct. 16, 1758, in West Hartford, Conn. In 1774 he entered Yale, sharing literary ambitions with his classmate Joel Barlow and tutor Timothy Dwight. His college years were interrupted by terms of military service. After his graduation in 1779, he taught school in Hartford, Litchfield, and Sharon, read widely, and studied law. He was admitted to the bar and received his master of arts degree in 1781. Dissatisfied with the British-made textbooks available for teaching, he determined to produce his own. He had, he said, "too much pride to stand indebted to Great Britain for books to learn our children."
Schoolmaster to America
Webster devised the first of his long series of American schoolbooks, a speller ponderously titled A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I (1783). Known for generations simply as The Blue-back Speller, it was in use for more than a century and sold over 70 million copies. His book's effect on students is said to have been unparalleled in the history of American elementary education. Part II of the Grammatical Institute, a grammar, reprinted often under various titles, appeared in 1784. Part III, a reader, in the original 1785 edition included excerpts from yet-unpublished poetry by Dwight and Barlow. Though the reader had shorter life and more vigorous competition than other parts of the Institute, it set a patriotic and moralistic pattern followed by rival books, some of which were thought to attract attention because more religiously orientated. Webster stressed what he called the "art of reading" in later volumes, including two secularized versions of The New England Primer (1789, 1801), The Little Reader's Assistant (1790), The Elementary Primer (1831), and The Little Franklin (1836).
Webster toured the United States from Maine to Georgia selling his textbooks, convinced that "America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms, " but that to accomplish this she must protect by copyright the literary products of her countrymen. He pleaded so effectively that uniform copyright laws were early passed in most of the states, and it was largely through his continuing effort that Congress in 1831 passed a bill which ensured protection to writers. On his travels he also peddled his Sketches of American Policy (1785), a vigorous Federalist plea. In Philadelphia, where he paused briefly to teach school and see new editions of his Institute through the press, he published his politically effective An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (1787).
In New York, Webster established the American Magazine (1787-1788), which he hoped might become a national periodical. In it he pled for American intellectual independence, education for women, and adherence to Federalist ideas. Though it survived for only 12 monthly issues, it is remembered as one of the most lively, bravely adventuresome of early American periodicals. He continued as a political journalist with such pamphlets as The Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry (1793), The Revolution in France (1794), and The Rights of Neutral Nations (1802).
But Webster's principal interest became language reform. As he set forth his ideas in Dissertations on the English Language (1789), theatre should be spelled theater; crumb, crumb; machine, masheen; plough, plow; draught, draft. For a time he put forward claims for such reform in his readers and spellers and in his Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings (1790), which encouraged "reezoning, " "yung" persons, "reeding, " and a "zeel" for "lerning"; but he was too canny a Yankee always to allow eccentricity to stand in the way of profit. In The Prompter (1790) he quietly lectured his countrymen in corrective essays written plainly, in simple aphoristic style.
After his marriage in 1789, Webster practiced law in Hartford for 4 years before returning to New York to edit the city's first daily newspaper, the American Minerva (1793-1798). Tiring of the partisan controversy brought on by his forthright expression of Federalist opinion, he retired to New Haven to write A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases (1899) and to put together a volume of Miscellaneous Papers (1802).
From this time on, Webster gave most of his attention to preparing more schoolbooks, including A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language (1807). But he was principally concerned with compilation of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806); its abridgment, A Dictionary … Compiled for the Use of Common Schools (1807, revised 1817); and finally, in two volumes, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). In range this last surpassed any dictionary of its time. A second edition, "corrected and enlarged" (1841), became known popularly as Webster's Unabridged. Conservative contemporaries, alarmed at its unorthodoxies in spelling, usage, and pronunciation and its proud inclusion of Americanisms, derided it as "Noah's Ark." However, after Webster's death the rights were sold in 1847 to George and Charles Merriam, printers in Worcester, Mass.; and the dictionary has become, through many revisions, the cornerstone and bulwark of effective American lexicography.
Webster's other late writings included A History of the United States (1832), a version of the Bible (1832) cleansed of all words and phrases dangerous to children or "offensive especially to females, " and a final Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects (1843). Tall, redheaded, lanky, humorless, he was the butt of many cruel criticisms in his time. He died in New Haven on May 23, 1843.
Webster's Letters were edited by Harry R. Warfel (1953). Biographies include Emily E. (Ford) Skeel, Notes on the Life of Noah Webster (1912); Ervin C. Shoemaker, Noah Webster: Pioneer of Learning (1936); and Harry R. Warfel, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (1936). See also Robert K. Leavitt, Noah's Ark, New England Yankees, and the Endless Quest (1947), a history of the first century of Merriam-Webster dictionaries. □
Noah Webster, 1758–1843, American lexicographer and philologist, b. West Hartford, Conn., grad. Yale, 1778. After serving in the American Revolution, Webster practiced law in Hartford. His Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in three parts, speller, grammar, and reader (1783–85), was the first of a list of publications which made him for many years the chief American authority on the English language. The first part, often revised, was his famous Elementary Spelling Book, or
with which he helped to standardize American spelling. Pioneer families on the frontiers taught their children to read from it; in the schools it was a basic textbook, and in settlements and villages its lists were read out for lively spelling matches. By 1850, when the total population of the United States was about 23 million, the annual sales of Webster's spelling book were some 1 million copies, and the figures increased yearly.
An active Federalist, Webster became a pamphleteer for centralized government and wrote his Sketches of American Policy (1785), proposing the adoption of a constitution. The difficulty of copyrighting his works in 13 states led Webster to agitate for many years for a national copyright law; it was passed in 1790. In 1793 he left Hartford to support Washington's administration by editing the New York's first daily newspaper, American Minerva (later the Commercial Advertiser); he was also editor, at various times, of several magazines. Webster also wrote scholarly studies on a great diversity of subjects, including epidemic diseases, mythology, meteors, and the relationship of European and Asian languages.
During most of his later life he lived in New Haven, Conn., and Amherst, Mass., and was a member of the first board of trustees of Amherst College. Deriving his income from his schoolbooks, he devoted most of the rest of his life to compiling dictionaries. After his Compendious Dictionary was published in 1806, he worked on another, the two-volume The American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which included definitions of 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had not appeared in such a work before—many were unique to American English. Its definitions were excellent, and the dictionary's sales reached 300,000 annually. Webster's foremost achievement, the work helped to standardize American pronunciation. He completed the revision of 1840, and the dictionary, revised many times since, has retained its popularity. See also dictionary.
See his letters, ed. by H. R. Warfel (1953); biographies by H. E. Scudder (6th ed. 1971) and J. Kendall (2011); E. J. Monaghan, A Common Heritage: Noah Webster's Blue-Back Speller (1982); E. Skeel, A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster (ed. by E. H. Carpenter, Jr., 1958).
Webster's lexicographical career began with the compilation of A Compendious Dictionary (1806), which was marked by innovations in spelling and by adherence to New England educated speech for pronunciation. Public criticism of the innovations eventually led to the ‘dictionary wars’ in which Joseph Emerson Worcester, who favoured BrE norms, led the opposition. Webster modified his stance in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828, 1840), and considered its etymologies to be the most important aspect of his work. He adhered to the Biblical account of the origin of languages, claiming that all languages derived from ‘Chaldee’. The inclusion of technical terms and an attempt at precision in definitions distinguished this dictionary, but few Americanisms were included.
Some of Webster's recommendations for spelling reform, suggested as early as his Dissertations (1789), survived modification in later editions of his texts. The principles behind his reforms were analogy, etymology, reason, and usage. He was most concerned about superfluous letters and indeterminate sounds and characters. Although most of his early suggestions were retracted, the US spelling of such words as honor, center, defense, public can be attributed to his choice of them rather than honour, centre, defense, publick. He recognized that language influences people and he sought to ensure that American texts reflected American values as he understood them.