On this day…
Today, October 16th, is recognized as National Dictionary Day, in honor of the birthday of Noah Webster. Noah Webster, a lexicographer, political writer, editor, and author, was born on October 16th, 1758.
Webster studied law at Yale, and passed the bar in 1781. However, with the Revolutionary War in full swing, he was unable to find work as a lawyer. Webster opened a private school in Connecticut that was immediately a great success, but closed it soon after and left town. After writing many articles for a well-known New England newspaper, he once again opened a private school, this time in New York. It was while teaching at this school that Webster realized the need for better English textbooks. Most textbooks came from England, and Webster believed that American children should learn from American books.
From 1783 – 1785, Webster published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language which was separated into three parts: a speller, grammar book, and reader. This textbook found its way into most American schools. Because of its growing popularity (15 million copies sold by 1837, 60 million sold by 1890), the royalties from the “Blue-Backed Speller”, as it is commonly referred to, were enough to support Webster’s family while he worked on his dictionary.
Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806. In 1828 he published the first edition of his An American Dictionary of the English Language, released in two volumes. This dictionary contained 70,000 words, about 12,000 of which had never before appeared in a dictionary. Webster focused on respelling words in a much more phonetic style, as he believed that the English spelling rules of many words were unnecessarily complex. Many of today’s differences between the European English and American English spellings of words originated with Webster.
Although today Webster’s name is synonymous with dictionaries, his first dictionary only sold about 2,500 copies. Because of this, he was forced to mortgage his home to work on a second edition. His second edition was published in 1840. A few days after he completed the revising of an appendix to his second edition, Noah Webster passed away.