Today's Birthdays: October 16

October 16

Noah Webster

1758–1843, American lexicographer and philologist, born in West Hartford, Conn., graduated 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 English. The first part, often revised, was his famous Elementary Spelling Book, or "Blue-backed Speller," 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 less than 23,200,000, the annual sales of Webster's spelling book were about 1,000,000 copies, and the figures increased yearly. 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. An active Federalist, he became a pamphleteer for centralized government and wrote his Sketches of American Policy (1785), proposing the adoption of a constitution. In 1793 he left Hartford to support Washington's administration by editing the newspaper American Minerva (later the Commercial Advertiser) in New York; he was also editor, at various times, of several magazines. Webster 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 American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which included definitions of 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had not appeared in such a work before. Its definitions were excellent, and the dictionary's sales reached 300,000 annually. This work, Webster's foremost achievement, helped to standardize American pronunciation. Webster completed the revision of 1840, and the dictionary, revised many times, has retained its popularity. See also dictionary.


See his letters, ed. by H. R. Warfel (1953); biography by H. E. Scudder (6th ed. 1971); Emily Skeel, A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster (ed. by E. H. Carpenter, Jr., 1958); E. J. Monaghan, A Common Heritage: Noah Webster and His Blue-Black Speller (1982).

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