Old Yale

The Yalie behind the American dictionary

Noah Webster's legacy.

Judith Ann Schiff is chief research archivist at the Yale University Library. She will be one of the speakers at Yale's celebration, October 16-17, of the 250th anniversary of Webster's birth on October 16, 1758.

Manuscripts & Archives

Manuscripts & Archives

This engraving was printed as the frontispiece of an edition of Noah Webster's dictionary published by the G. & C. Merriam Co several years after Webster's death in 1843. View full image

Noah Webster (1758–1843), Class of 1778, was the son of a West Hartford, Connecticut, farmer who mortgaged the family farm to pay for his son's Yale education. On June 29, 1775, during Webster's freshman year, General George Washington went through New Haven en route to Cambridge to take command of the American army. Under the musical leadership of Webster, a talented flutist, the student company performed their military exercises for the general and escorted him through town.

After graduating in the midst of the Revolution, Webster taught and studied law. He went on to various occupations -- school headmaster, newspaper editor, lawyer, and politician. But his primary mission was to teach the American people through his language books: spellers, readers, and dictionaries. "Now is the time and this is the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science, and government," Webster wrote in an essay titled "On Education" in the December 1787 issue of American Magazine. "Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government."

Over his lifetime, Webster published more than 50 books and pamphlets in a variety of fields. Most of his later scholarly work was done in New Haven, in a gracious house that stood at the corner of Temple and Grove Streets. (When Silliman College was under construction in the 1930s, Henry Ford bought the house and moved it to his outdoor history museum, Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan.)

Webster's most influential works were linguistic: the American Grammar (1784), American Reader (1785), and American Spelling Book (1789), as well as his dictionaries -- A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) and, most extensive of all, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). He used inspirational accounts of American heroes and the battles of the Revolution to teach basic language skills, and religion and morals to illustrate word use. ("Improve, v.i. . . . It is the duty . . . of a good man to improve in grace and piety.")

His most phenomenal success was the American Spelling Book, nicknamed the "blue-backed speller." In 1847, it was said that about 24 million copies had been published and that sales averaged about a million per year. By the end of the nineteenth century, about 100 million had been sold. Only the Bible outsold it. Even with royalties of only one cent per copy, it supported Webster and his family during the two decades that he researched and wrote, singlehandedly, the monumental American Dictionary. The 1828 work contained 12,000 words and 40,000 definitions not then found in any similar publication. His dictionary became so famous that "Webster" became a generic term used to validate many dictionaries.

Webster believed and often said that "a national language is a national tie." He attempted to purify and enrich English into a distinctive American language that featured simplified spelling and "new" Native American words such as skunk, raccoon, and succotash. Webster had campaigned for spelling reform since 1789, with mixed success. In a 1790 essay, he wrote: "It has been said that coquettes often looze their reputation, while they retain their virtu; and that prudes often preserve their reputation, after they hav lost their virtu." Even his loyal supporter, Yale president Ezra Stiles, could not help commenting to Webster: "I suspect you have put in the pruning Knife too freely for general acceptance." He was ultimately successful in changing the French "re" ending to "er" in words such as theater, and the English "ou" to "o" in humor. Other changes, such as women to wimmen and learning to lerning, were not adopted, and in later years Webster backed off from his more radical recommendations.

Webster claimed to be the father of the Constitution, pointing to his "Sketches of American Policy," a pamphlet published in 1785 that urged replacement of the Confederation with a strong central government. He even wrote a modest revision of the King James Bible, because, he noted in his introduction, some parts were "so offensive, especially to females, as to create a reluctance in young persons to attend Bible classes and schools, in which they are required to read passages which cannot be repeated without a blush." ("Whoredome," for example, was replaced with "lewdness.")

Public health was another interest. With the help of Benjamin Rush, the prominent Philadelphia physician and medical professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Webster conducted pioneering scientific surveys of infectious diseases, particularly yellow fever. He also wrote a two-volume Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases (1799), a review of the available data and contemporary theories. (Webster himself favored the hypothesis that air quality induces epidemics.)

During the decade he lived in Amherst, Webster raised over $50,000 to help found Amherst College in 1821. Webster also advocated unemployment insurance, copyright laws, city planning, forest conservation, and the gradual abolition of slavery. As historian Harlow G. Unger ’53 wrote in 1998 in his definitive biography of Webster: "Noah Webster helped create far more than an American dictionary; he helped create an American nation."  

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