On This Day In History: April 14

Noah Webster

It was on this day in 1828 that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. Webster put together the dictionary because he wanted Americans to have a national identity that wasn’t based on the language and ideas of England. And the problem wasn’t just that Americans were looking to England for their language; it was that they could barely communicate with each other because regional dialects were so vastly different. 

Noah Webster was a school teacher in Connecticut and was dismayed at the state of education in the years immediately following the Revolution. There was very little money for school supplies and students were crowded into one-room schoolhouses using textbooks from England that talked about the great King George. Webster recognized that his students’ spelling was atrocious, as was that of the general public. At the time, it was assumed that there were several spellings for one word. 

In 1801, he started compiling his dictionary. Part of what he accomplished, much like his textbook, was standardizing spelling. He introduced American words, some of them derived from Native American languages like skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory, opossum, lengthy, and presidential, Congress, and caucus (which were not relevant in England’s monarchy). 

Webster spent almost 30 years on his project, and finally, on April 14, 1828, it was published. But unfortunately, it cost $15 or $20, which was a huge amount in 1828, and Webster died in 1843 without having sold many copies. The book did help launch Webster as a writer and a proponent of an American national identity. Webster had an uncanny knack for marketing, traveling around to meet with new publishers and booksellers, publishing ads in the local newspapers for his book wherever he went. He also lobbied for copyright law and served for a time as an advisor to George Washington, and wrote his own edition of the Bible. Finally, his tallies of houses in all major cities led to the first American census. 

In 1873, Webster published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The first section was eventually retitled The American Spelling Book, but usually called by the nickname “Blue-Backed Speller.” The Blue-Backed Speller taught American children the rules of spelling and simplified words. For example, it was Webster who took the “u” out of English words like colour and honour; he took a “g” out of waggon, a “k” off the end of musick, and switched the order of the “r” and “e” in theatre and centre.

Information sources: 

https://www.merriam-webster.com/about-us/americas-first-dictionary

https://noahwebsterhouse.org/

The Noah Webster House is a historic house museum located at 227 South Main Street, West Hartford, Connecticut. It was the home of American lexicographer Noah Webster, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962.