Noah Webster (1758 –1843) authored An American Dictionary of the English Language, more commonly referred to as “Webster’s.” It is still regarded as the definitive work on American English. But Webster wasn’t only a lexicographer. There at the birth of the United States, he helped shape the national identity through politics and law, as well as language reform.
Let’s have a look at the top 10 most interesting facts about Noah Webster.
Noah Webster Facts
1. He was a Yale graduate.
While growing up, Noah and his siblings were taught spelling, mathematics, and music by their mother. An interesting fact about Noah Webster is that his father didn’t attend college, but prized education, and mortgaged the family home to send Noah to Yale. He enrolled just before his 16th birthday and graduated in 1778. With only a liberal arts degree, Webster felt his career options were limited, and so he studied law while working as a teacher in Hartford. He completed his studies and passed the bar examination in 1781. After giving an oral dissertation at Yale, he received his master’s degree.
2. Webster was a child of the American Revolution.
Webster grew up during the American Revolution and embraced the radical ideas of the time. He even interrupted his Yale studies briefly to join the Connecticut militia. The nationalist in him regarded the development of an American language distinct from that of the British Empire, as a critical element of nation-building. He and his works lent dignity and credibility to popular “Americanisms” and played a defining role in the new nation’s national identity.
3. His “Blue-backed Spellers” were best sellers.
Although Noah Webster is best known for his dictionary, he was a prolific author, an interesting Noah Webster fact. The decades spent working on his dictionary were only made possible by the sales of his school textbooks, popularly known as the “Blue-backed Speller.” A Grammatical Institute of the English Language was first published in 1783 and went on to sell nearly 100 million copies over the next century – teaching five generations of American children. Up until then, the majority of school textbooks were imported from England.
4. Webster’s dictionary contained 70 000 words.
It took Noah Webster 28 years to complete his dictionary. It contained 70 000 words, twelve thousand of which had never been published before. Webster believed that British spelling was unnecessarily complex. We have him to thank for American spellings such as color, favorite, and honor in lieu of the British colour, favourite, and honour. He proposed dropping all silent letters, but this was not uniformly adopted. (We still use young instead of yung, for example.) Some of his suggestions for regularizing other sounds were similarly ignored, such as masheen for machine, and wimmen for women. Webster’s dictionary also included uniquely American words such as skunk and squash.
5. Webster’s is the only mainstream dictionary with Biblical references.
Webster was a devout Christian who believed that “Education is useless without the Bible.” His dictionary contained more than 6000 Bible references, and for many years remained the only mainstream dictionary to use Bible references to demonstrate the meaning of words. Some of these, such as the definition of marriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman, fail to maintain relevance in the modern era.
6. He was acquainted with more than 20 languages.
Webster’s Christian faith accounted for his belief that all language stems from Aramaic. An interesting fact about Noah Webster is that in order to extract the origin of the words he included in his dictionary, he acquired knowledge of over 20 languages including German, Dutch, Spanish, French, Welsh, Italian, Russian, Persian, Arabic, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Gothic, Aramaic, Sanskrit and Old English. He traveled to Paris, France, and Cambridge, England, for research.
7. Known as the “Father of American Scholarship and Education.”
Noah Webster is known as the “Father of American Scholarship and Education.” As a lexicographer and language reformer, he was certainly that, but he wore many other hats. His first career was as a schoolteacher and later an author of the Blue-backed Speller. He was an outspoken politician and early abolitionist who fought against the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. He was a newspaper editor and founded one of New York City’s first daily newspapers, American Minerva. And he was a lawyer, responsible for the first federal copyright laws in 1790, whereby he protected his own work.
8. Webster’s first dictionary only sold 2500 copies.
The first edition of Webster’s dictionary was published in 1825 and only sold 2500 copies. Webster was forced to mortgage his house to publish a second edition. It, too, was not a success. He died in 1843, shortly after completing a revised appendix to the second edition.
9. Merriman-Webster Publishing owns the rights to Webster’s works.
The Merriman brothers opened their printing business in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1831. In 1843, they bought the unsold copies of the 1841 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged from Webster’s heirs after his death. With the purchase, they acquired publishing rights to revised editions of the dictionary. G. & C. Merriam Co. was renamed Merriam-Webster Inc. in 1982 and continues to publish Webster’s Dictionary.
10. His childhood home is now a museum.
An interesting fact about Noah Webster is that his birthplace and childhood home in West Hartford, Connecticut, was restored and opened as a museum in 1966. It has two exhibition galleries, a theatre, and a museum shop. There is a permanent exhibition on Noah Webster, and the museum hosts regular cultural programs. It houses an original edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, and a diverse selection of decorative art, literature, and artifacts relating to Webster and the West Hartford community. In addition to other visitors, an average of 10 000 children is serviced annually. It offers a history club, workshops, summer camps, and many free-of-charge services to at-risk children.
Noah Webster was a key influencer in the reformation of American English and American identity generally.
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