yale learning


Noah Webster and the first American Dictionary

Few people have had an influence on a nation like Noah Webster.  Born in 1758, Webster attended Yale University at the age of 16 during the Revolutionary War, then studied law, estimating his liberal education no way to make a living.  He was given a loan by Alexander Hamilton to move to New York to edit the Federalist Papers.  An incredibly prolific student and writer, Webster wrote dozens of books and articles on a vast range of topics from politics to health and science to spellers.  His lasting legacy however, has to be his masterwork An American Dictionary of the English Language, the first exhaustive and academic approach to American English published.  Not only did Webster simplify (and therefore institutionalize) American spelling, taking the U out of color and parlor, he changed words like centre and theatre to center and theater.  

Webster worked on the dictionary for over twenty years, and in the process learned over 20 languages to better understand the etymology and origin of words.  In addition to the Latin and Ancient Greek he learned in school and at Yale, Webster learned  German, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, Welsh, Russian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit.  The American Dictionary was first published on April 14, 1828 but cost meant that it would be decades before it saw wide use and acceptance.  The word etymology comes directly from the Ancient Greek word ετυμολογος etumologos from ετυμος etymos meaning true, real or correct.  Webster’s first dictionary had 70,000 definitions and only sold 2,500 copies in its first edition, and Webster never recovered from the debt incurred by the publication.  For over a century, Webster stood as the definitive work of American etymology and word meaning.  When researching words for this blog, one of my first references is often the Merriam-Webster iphone app.  We’ve come a long way since April 14, 1828, but it all started with Webster.