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Languages, and Literatures
compiler of the first American speller and a comprehensive dictionary of the English language
Noah Webster was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, on October 16, 1758. He graduated from Yale in 1778, taught in village schools while studying law, and was admitted to the bar at Hartford in 1781.
While teaching at Goshen, New York, in the late 1780's, Webster compiled an elementary spelling book, which was published in three parts between 1783 and 1785 as A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The first American work in its field, this book was notable for its useful simplification of English spelling and was soon a staple in schools throughout the country. By 1861 sales of Webster's speller had reached over a million copies a year.
After publishing his speller Webster turned his attentions to political writing. His Sketches of American Policy (1785) was considered, at least by him, the first distinct proposal for a U.S. Constitution. In 1788 he started the American Magazine in New York, but it failed after less than a year and he returned to his Hartford law practice. In 1793, in order to support President George Washington's administration and oppose the schemes being proposed by Edmond Genet, Webster established a daily paper, the Minerva (later called the Commercial Advertiser), in New York, as well as a semi-weekly paper, the Herald (later called the New York Spectator). He also dabbled in politics directly, holding various public posts in both Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Webster's primary focus, however, was the study of the English language, and in 1806 he published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, which contained much encyclopedic information; A Philosophical and Practical Grammar of the English Language was published the following year. He spent the next twenty years gathering words and definitions for what would become his most well-known work. An American Dictionary of the English Language appeared in two volumes in 1828, and included 12,000 words and 40,000 definitions that had never before appeared in a dictionary. A second edition, published in 1840, contained even more words and definitions and also corrected some of the entries in the original. Webster completed a third edition to his dictionary shortly before his death, which came on May 28, 1843, in New Haven. After his death, Webster's heirs sold the dictionary rights to the G. and C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. Neither Webster's heirs nor the Merriam Company ever copyrighted the name "Webster's Dictionary," and today anyone can publish a dictionary using Webster's name.
Other works written by Webster include Dissertations on the English Language (1789); The Rights of Neutral Nations in Time of War (1802); A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects (1843); and Governor John Winthrop's Journal of 1790.
This page was last updated on 03/07/2017.