The announcement came in 1800 in the back of a Connecticut newspaper just above a farmer’s reward for a stray cow. A man named Noah Webster was proposing the first comprehensive “dictionary of the American language.”
Webster was mocked and scorned for challenging the King’s English. About 60 percent of the country spoke English at the time, while others spoke German, Swedish and Dutch. Even among English speakers, regional dialects were strong.
A teacher after the Revolutionary War, Webster believed that Americans should have their own textbooks rather than rely on English books. He created a speller that taught students to read, spell and pronounce words and traveled around the country to promote the book.
His dictionary, and earlier spellers and readers widely used in schools, would help a new nation achieve unity and cultural independence at a time when most were focused on political freedom.
“He was the shaper of our language and the shaper of American identity,” said Joshua Kendall, who is working on a biography about Webster. “Webster at last bonded us through our language.”
Webster is the focus of a commemoration Oct. 16-17 at Yale University to mark his 250th birthday with lectures, an exhibition of memorabilia and a visit to his grave in New Haven.
“You cannot look up a dictionary definition today and not stumble across many definitions that were written by Noah Webster,” said Jill Lepore, a Harvard University professor. “His definitions are quite masterful.”
Webster, born in what is now West Hartford, got his first glimpse of George Washington in 1775 when he and other Yale students serenaded the commander in chief on his way to Boston. Webster was later astounded when he heard all the languages spoken by the Continental Army.
“The language of the new nation was up for grabs,” Kendall said. “Webster said we’re going to speak American English.”
Webster’s speller made it easier for children to learn English by spelling words more like they sounded. The French version of words like “centre” became “center” and he dropped the British “u” in words like colour” and the redundant “k” in musick and other words.
Webster also interspersed his speller with patriotic stories about Washington and other American heroes as well as American geography. His “blue-backed speller” would go on to sell some 100 million copies by the end of the 19th century.
“Children grew up to be Americans as opposed to British subjects,” said Harlow Giles Unger, who wrote a book on Webster in 1998. “I would call him the father of American education.”
During his time, though, some called Webster less flattering names.
“He nursed resentments his whole life,” Lepore said. “He really did rub everybody the wrong way.”
When a friend congratulated him on his arrival in Philadelphia, Webster replied, “Sir, you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion,” according to the Noah Webster House in West Hartford.
But his ego fit the task of trying to create the new country’s first comprehensive dictionary. Webster spent 28 years on the project before completing the 70,000-word dictionary in 1828 with his American-style spellings while adding quintessentially American words like skunk, caucus and chowder and noting new wonders like gas lights.
Webster wasn’t shy about weaving in his opinions. In defining preposterous, he wrote, “a Republican government in the hands of females is preposterous.”
He quoted friends like Ben Franklin liberally, while ignoring adversaries like Thomas Jefferson.
But Webster also impressed with his thoughtful definitions. Lepore cited his definition of “admiration” as “wonder mingled with pleasing emotions, as approbation, esteem, love or veneration; a compound emotion excited by something novel, rare, great or excellent; applied to persons and their works. It often includes a slight degree of surprise.”
Webster’s dictionary was so popular that he became a successful advocate for the country’s first copyright laws. He also helped found Amherst College in Massachusetts and fought for a strong federal government, but opposed the Bill of Rights.
While showing a popular touch for language, Webster proposed that no one under 45 should vote. He offered a literary prize for Yale, but wanted to exclude students guilty of “seduction,” according to Kendall.
Webster, who died in 1843 at 86, became synonymous with the dictionary but less well known over time and often confused with Daniel Webster, a secretary of state and great orator in the 19th century.
But to his admirers Noah Webster was a visionary who was a pioneer for everything from paving streets to helping the jobless.
“He has his finger in every pie you could imagine in the formation of modern American society as we know it,” Unger said.