The Neatest Little Paper Ever Read ®

Issue 974



• Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758, not long before the American Colonies started to agitate for freedom from England. He attended an overcrowded one-room schoolhouse. It was a miserable experience for him that colored his opinion of the school system for the rest of his life. Still, he managed to graduate from Yale in 1778, after taking some time out from his studies to fight in the Revolutionary War.

• Next, he became a lawyer but couldn’t find enough work. He became a school master instead. Now he was back to remembering all the problems with the American school system: crowded classes, low pay, and poor teaching materials. One of his biggest issues was that the only text books the students had access to were all published in England. They glorified English culture while ignoring all things American, and they adhered to confusing and archaic spelling rules followed by the English aristocracy. Webster thought that American schoolchildren should learn from American books written by American authors. Since there were none available, he set out to write them himself.

• He subsequently published a three-volume set: a spelling book published in 1783, a grammar book published in 1784, and a reader published in 1785.

• Webster’s “American Spelling Book” was arranged to teach students in an easy, organized progression: it started with the alphabet; moved into the phonetics of sounding out vowels, consonants, and syllables; proceeded into a series of increasingly complex words; and concluded with simple sentences. This was a revolutionary new approach. (cont’d)

• For the next one hundred years, Webster’s book was the top-selling American book. It sold 15 million copies by 1837, and 60 million by 1890. Over the course of his lifetime, 385 editions were published. Webster received one-half cent in royalties for every copy sold. This income allowed him to pursue his other passion: spelling reform.

• Webster felt that language was constantly evolving, and spelling should evolve too. He was tired of the confusing British method of spelling. He set out to standardize the American lexicon, since Americans spoke many dialects in which they spelled, pronounced, and used words differently. Webster learned to speak 28 languages so he could understand the origins of language. He then spent the next 20 years assembling the first American language dictionary, in which he instigated sweeping spelling reforms.

• Webster changed “c” to “s” in many words like “defense”; swapped “re” for “er” in words like “center”; turned “ou” into “o” in words like “favor”; and dropped double consonants in words like “traveling”. “Plough” became “plow”; “draught” turned into “draft”; and “publick” became “public.” Other reformed words failed to catch on: “wimmen” and “tung” and “masheen.” He also added entirely new, all-American words such as skunk, hickory, and chowder.

• When his dictionary was published in 1806, it sold only 2,500 copies. He began work on a new, improved dictionary but was forced to mortgage his home to raise funds, and was thereafter plagued with debt for the rest of his life. Noah Webster died in 1843, two years after the 3rd edition of his dictionary was published. Webster’s passion for spelling resulted in the creation of a popular new contest known as the spelling bee.