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The many different versions of Webster’s dictionary

 

Noah Webster was born in West Hartford, Conn., Oct. 16, 1758. Because of his lifelong passion for standardizing America’s grammar and spelling, he became a well-known American scholar and lexicographer -- dictionary compiler.

His exceptional talents as a young man convinced his father to sacrifice much in order for his son to have the best education possible. In 1774, at age 16, young Noah entered Yale College. His college years were interrupted by two terms of military service but he still graduated in 1778 and began studying law.

Because his father could no longer afford to support him, Webster accepted a job as schoolmaster at Hartford, Litchfield and Sharon, Conn. All the while, however, he read widely, learned 20 languages, and continued his law studies. In 1781, at age 23, he received a Master of Arts degree and was admitted to the Bar.

Dissatisfied with the British-based textbooks available for teachers, Webster began producing his own. As he described it, he had “too much pride to stand indebted to Great Britain for books to learn our children.”

Webster’s first textbook, commonly called The Blueback Speller, was introduced in 1783. It was used for more than a century and sold more than 70 million copies. That speller’s effect on students has been said to be unequaled in the history of American elementary education.

During the following two decades, Noah Webster married and spent time in Hartford practicing law. He edited one of New York City’s first daily newspapers while also writing short histories and miscellaneous papers.

During that period he also published a global warming booklet, Are Our Winters Getting Warmer? It’s of special interest to note that Webster’s question from two centuries ago remains a controversial topic still today.

His first dictionary was published in 1806. Webster is credited with the introduction of such distinctive American spellings as color, humor, and center (for British colour, humour, and centre). However, many of his innovative spellings (including masheen for machine and yung for young) failed to catch on.

During the following 35 years, Webster published several different improved versions of his dictionary. In 1841, his two-volume An American Dictionary of the English Language Second Edition went beyond any dictionary of its time. It became popularly known as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. His many subsequent revised editions made the “Webster” name a household word meaning standard dictionary.

Noah Webster died May 28, 1843. In 1847, the rights to his dictionary were sold to printers George and Charles Merriam in Worchester, Mass. In the 200 years since then, the many Merriam-Webster Dictionary editions have become the foundation of effective American lexicography.

Webster hoped his work would improve morals and patriotism as well as language. He backed many causes including his vigorous campaign for a copyright law. At the time of the Articles of Confederation, in his Sketches of American Policy (1785), he argued for a centralized government. Later, as a newspaper editor, he corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington whose administration he supported.

He also fought for universal education and the abolition of slavery. He helped found Amherst College, created his own version of an “American” Bible, raised eight children, and celebrated 54 anniversaries with his beloved wife.

Even though this tall, redheaded, lanky, humorless man was the butt of many cruel criticisms during his lifetime, the benefit of his work throughout his 85 years is incalculable. He was an American hero.

“Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.” Author Unknown

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at kennanco@gmail.com or visit

www.kennancompany.com.

 
 
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