Noah Webster was an odd duck, a famously fussy lexicographer who not only Americanized the English language but created the idea of American patriotism.
He wrote the first real American dictionary, called, appropriately, An American Dictionary of the English Language, which took him 28 years to finish. His goal: to standardize American speech.
He couldn’t afford law school after he graduated from Yale in 1778, so he taught schoolchildren. His students used books published in England, sometimes pledging allegiance to King George III. They didn’t learn American geography or American history. Noah Webster decided to change all that.
Noah Webster also advised Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, co-founded Amherst College, started America’s first daily newspaper and pushed Congress to pass copyright laws.
Noah Webster in 16 Takes
- He personally counted all the houses in every town he visited. Traveling across America in 1785 and 1786, he tallied 20,380 houses in 22 cities. Webster exchanged that information with other people who counted houses.
- He had the cheek to chastise George Washington over dinner at Mount Vernon in 1785. Washington mentioned he wanted a Scottish tutor for his step-grandchildren. Webster, then all of 26, told the 53-year-old hero of the Revolution that he should find an American for the job.
- A lot of people didn’t like him because of his vanity. When he met Dr. Benjamin Rush at a dinner party in Philadelphia, Rush congratulated Webster on his safe arrival in the city. Webster replied, “Sir, you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion.” (Eventually, Rush and Webster became friends.)
- He was dumped twice, the first time by a woman who found him too boring, the second time by a woman whose minister told her to marry someone else. Rebecca Greenleaf finally said ‘yes’ to his marriage proposal. “I suspect I am not formed for society,” he wrote to her before their marriage.
- He probably had obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (see No. 1), often mentioning in his diary his ‘depression,’ ‘anxiety’ and ‘nervous affectations.’ He wrote his famous Blue-Backed Speller and later his dictionaries as a form of therapy.
- Webster hated Shakespeare, complaining his language was ‘full of errors.’
- He was often broke and in debt, though his wife was rich, his speller sold nearly 100 million copies and he landed America’s first blockbuster book deal, $42,000 over 14 years. He borrowed $1,500 from Alexander Hamilton so he could move to New York and start the country’s first daily newspaper, American Minerva.
- Webster wrote the first American dictionary in 1806, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. Critics complained it had too many vulgar words. He replied he took out two-thirds of the vulgar words in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, leaving out arse, bum, fart and turd. He did keep piss, boghouse, buggery, sodomy and catamite.
Such a Deal
10. Like his friend Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster wanted to reform American spelling. Unlike Franklin, he succeeded, at least in part. He took out excess letters, like the ‘u’ in colour and honour, the extra ‘l’ in traveler, the ‘e’ on ax and the ‘ough’ in plow. He also reversed the ‘re’ in theater and center. Some of his changes didn’t make it, like bred for bread, wimmen for women, tung for tongue and dawter for daughter.
11. When he turned 20, his father gave him a nearly worthless $8 bill, and told him he was on his own.
12. It took him 28 years to complete his magnum opus, An American Dictionary of the English Language. It included 70,000 words, and one in every six words had never been listed in a dictionary before. They included emerging Americanisms like squash, applesauce, hickory, chowder and skunk, as well as words of his own invention: afterwise (wise afterwards or too late); vernate (become young again); zuffalo (a little flute… especially that which is used to teach birds.)
13. To write his dictionary, he learned 26 languages, including Old English, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit.
14. He founded Amherst College with Emily Dickinson’s grandfather, and Emily went to school with Noah Webster’s grandfdaughter. She later wrote that her lexicon (Webster’s dictionary) was her only companion.
15. He was an 18th century sock puppet who anonymously praised his own work and trashed his critics. The phrase ‘sock puppet,’ meaning ‘false online identity,’ made it into Merriam-Webster in 2009.
16. Though his blue-backed speller had no religious content, Noah Webster had a religious experience at age 40 and became a pious blowhard. As he was about to turn eighty, he declared that he would rather be a bear and hibernate in winter than “be under the tyranny of our degenerate rulers,” describing Americans as “a degenerate and wicked people.”
This story about Noah Webster was updated in 2020.