Last Look


Selling Webster's dictionary.

Manuscripts & Archives

Manuscripts & Archives

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It was Noah Webster, Class of 1778, born 250 years ago this October, who made it respectable for Americans to spell "color" without a u and "magic" without a k. His American dictionary project drew scorn at first from Americans who thought English ought to be handed down from England. Webster's outspoken criticisms of political and religious beliefs he disliked (there were many) didn't help. Only a few backers signed the subscription lists—the one shown here is in Sterling Memorial Library—that he circulated to friends and bookstores.

Webster wrote the nearly 70,000 definitions in his dictionary himself, without assistants. It took him a laborious quarter-century. (He did have other tasks, including serving in the Massachusetts legislature and founding Amherst College.) The two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, made his name as a lexicographer, and "Webster's" eventually became the American dictionary. But the work never did pay for itself in his lifetime.

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