A Brief Biography of Noah Webster

a portrait of Noah Born in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758, Noah Webster grew up in the turbulent period just before the start of the American Revolution and he was a strong advocate of the Constitutional Convention. He believed that the United States should develop cultural as well as political independence from Europe, and he felt it was important for people to acknowledge that this country had a distinctive brand of English with its own vocabulary, pronunciation, and style.

Noah Webster attended Yale University. He entered that college in 1774, interrupted his studies to serve in the American army during the U.S. War of Independence, then returned to school and graduated in 1778.

After college, Webster became a school teacher. He quickly became dissatisfied with the textbooks available for his students--so he started writing new ones. In 1783, he published The American Speller, a work that is perhaps the most famous spelling book ever created in the United States. The book, which is also known as "The Blue-Backed Speller" (because it originally had a blue cover) is reported to have sold more than 100,000,000 copies since it was first published.

By the early 1800s, Webster had decided that the United States needed its own dictionary. In 1806 Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the first truly American dictionary. It was a fairly small book by today's standards, about the size of a modern paperback dictionary, but it was an important first step in a much larger project.

Immediately after finishing the Compendious Dictionary, Webster started work on the book that would become his masterpiece. He called it An American Dictionary of the English Language. To make it, he had to learn 26 languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit, so he could better understand the origins of his own country's tongue. It took Webster more than 20 years to finish the huge new dictionary, but when it was published in 1828, it set new standards for how dictionaries should be made and what they should be like. It contained 70,000 entries (the boldface words that you look up), and introduced many important innovations. For example, Webster may have been the first to include separate alphabetical sections for the letters i and j (before his time, the letter j was treated as a variation of the i).

One facet of Webster's importance was his willingness to make changes when he thought innovation meant improvement. He was the first to record distinctively American words such as skunk, hickory, and chowder. He thought that many spelling rules were artificial and needlessly confusing, so he urged people to simplify many words. For instance, he played an important part in convincing Americans to change the spelling of musick to music, centre to center, and plough to plow. (Not all of the changes he suggested were accepted, however. He found little support for his suggestion that we change tongue to tung and women to wimmen.)

After a brilliant and distinguished career as a scholar, writer, and teacher, Noah Webster died in 1843 in Connecticut.

While Webster was promoting his dictionary, George and Charles Merriam opened a printing and bookselling operation in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1831. G. & C. Merriam Co. (renamed Merriam-Webster Inc. in 1982) inherited the Webster legacy when the Merriam brothers bought the unsold copies of the 1841 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged from Webster's heirs after the great man's death in 1843. At the same time they secured the rights to create revised editions of that work. It was the beginning of a publishing tradition that has continued uninterrupted to this day at Merriam-Webster.

Further information on the birthplace and life of Noah Webster is available at the Noah Webster House/Museum of West Hartford History.