Noah Webster, Father of the American Dictionary, Was Unemployable

Happy Dictionary Day, word-nerds! This is the official holiday in which we celebrate the birth of Noah Webster, who would be 254 years old if he were still living and breathing on this planet.

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Happy Dictionary Day, word-nerds! This is the official holiday in which we celebrate the birth of Noah Webster, who would be 254 years old if he were still living and breathing on this planet. Webster, of course, is the guy we consider the father of the American Dictionary, without whom our word knowledge would be something quite different—hence, it's not just his birthday, it's a day to celebrate dictionaries in general.

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor at large, passed along two quotes by Webster he considers "appropriate and inspirational in that they continue to be true for us today." First, "the business of the lexicographer is to collect, arrange, and define, as far as possible, all the words that belong to a language, and leave the author to select from them at his pleasure and according to his judgment." Second, "Analogy, custom, and habit form a better rule to guide men in the use of words than any tribunal of men.”

Webster's was not the first dictionary (those date back to Sumerian times) but was the first Americanized version, coming after the "first purely English dictionary," Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabetical (1604), which included 3,000 or so words. In 1746 to 47, per, "Samuel Johnson undertook the most ambitious English dictionary to that time, a list of 43,500 words." Webster's early 19th-century dictionary featuring 70,000 words sprang from that, and was followed by the Oxford English Dictionary. Dictionaries would never be the same.

A few facts about Noah Webster with which to impress your friends, if your friends are the type to be impressed by such things:

  • Webster's mother's name was Mercy.
  • He hailed from an "established Yankee family." His father founded a local book society, a pre-library.
  • Webster went to Yale at the age of 15. He graduated in 1778. With no solid career plans afterward, he did what all unemployed post grads do: He wrote that a liberal education "disqualifies a man for business." But things turned out OK—he went on to work as a teacher, studied law, got his masters, opened a school and then closed it (perhaps due to a failed romance!), became a journalist and political theorist, founded another private school for the wealthy, and, "by 1785, he had written his speller, a grammar book and a reader for elementary schools," the sales of which would allow him to work on his dictionary. This book was widely known as the Blue-Backed Speller, for its blue cover.
  • He lived during the American Revolution and sought American independence, in part by Americanizing and standardizing the spellings of various words (defying Anglocreep)—choosing s over c in words like defense, switching the re to er in words like center and theater, changing musick to music, dropping the double l in traveler and the u in words like colour or favour. He wanted to change tongue to tung, and women to wimmen, but that didn't happen. 
  • "He was the first to document distinctively American vocabulary such as skunk, hickory, and chowder."
  • From 1789, an essay includes some of his wild ideas on reforming spelling. For example, "1. The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes."
  • He borrowed $1,500 from Alexander Hamilton in 1793 to fund a move to New York, where he'd edit the Federalist Party newspaper. He also founded New York's first daily newspaper, American Minerva (which became the Commercial Advertiser).
  • He was called a number of fantastic dictionary-ready names by the Jeffersonian Republicans, including "a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot," "an incurable lunatic," "a deceitful newsmonger ... Pedagogue and Quack," "a traitor to the cause of Federalism, " "a toad in the service of sans-cullottism," "a prostitute wretch," "a great fool, and a barefaced liar," "a spiteful viper," and "a maniacal pedant." 
  • He helped to found Amherst College.
  • He had 8 children.
  • He was prolific: A modern bibliography of his published works required 655 pages.
  • His cousin was Daniel Webster.
  • His first dictionary, published in 1806, was called A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. After that came An American Dictionary of the English Language, which took 18 years to finish and contained 70,000 words, "of which twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before." To complete the work, he learned 26 languages, including Old English, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit. He was 70 when he published it in 1828. It only sold only sold 2,500 copies, and he was in debt for the rest of his life.
  • But! George and Charles Merriam, who'd opened a printing and bookselling business in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1831, bought unsold copies of Webster's second edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged (1841) from Webster's heirs after he died in 1843. The rest, as they say, is dictionary history.

In further celebration, here is a dictionary of terrible words.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.