Happy 259th Birthday Noah Webster!

Frontispiece of  An American Dictionary of the English Language

On this day, October 16th, in 1758, a pioneer in American English-language education was born. Noah Webster is one of the most influential figures in the early decades of American history; having published some of the most well-known textbooks and dictionaries of the nineteenth century. Webster’s first famous publication came with his 1783 A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, which was nicknamed the “Blue-Backed Speller” for its blue covers. Lehigh Special Collections holds an 1805 edition of Webster’s work The American Spelling Book, a later publication title of the Blue-Backed Speller. Webster aimed to provide a standard for American spelling and grammar, and also sought to educate schoolchildren with books written in America.

In 1801, Webster began compiling a dictionary of American usages and spellings of words. As Americans had slightly different ways of speaking than the English, Webster thought that a comprehensive dictionary would prove useful in standardizing the country’s language. After five years of work, he published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806. This volume contained approximately 37,000 words with concise definitions for each. A first edition copy of this work can be found in Lehigh Special Collections.

Webster continued his work as a lexicographer after 1806, and eventually published a followup dictionary in 1828 titled An American Dictionary of the English Language. This work expands on Webster’s first dictionaty by defining over 65,000 words.  Special Collections also holds a first edition of this work, available to interested researchers.

A hand-written letter by Webster is also held by Lehigh, and can be accessed through I Remain: A Digital Archive of Letters, Manuscripts, and Ephemera.

In addition to publishing educational volumes, Webster was active politically and strongly advocated the Copyright Act of 1831. The Webster name is still closely associated with dictionaries as the Merriam-Webster dictionary is still being actively updated and published. The hyphenation is the result of George and Charles Merriam purchasing the rights to Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language following his death in 1843. Noah Webster is still noteworthy today for his push to provide widespread access to high-quality educational resources. As Webster wrote in his 1807 A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language, “the most necessary learning is, ‘to unlearn that which is naught’.”

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