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Word Man

One hundred ninety years ago today, a man was born who later published a book the influence of which stretched far beyond his own lifetime and has affected every generation since.

Born on October 16, 1758, in West Hartford, Connecticut, he was a descendant of two governors. A quick learner, he entered Yale College at age sixteen and graduated four years later. He became a school teacher because he didn’t have the money to become a lawyer.

While teaching, he developed a burden for both his students and fellow teachers, who had few good teaching materials. He also dreamed of Americans’ speaking one common language and pronouncing and spelling words consistently. He was convinced that those qualities were critical to their survival as a people and a nation. More importantly, he was burdened that American students learn ethics, morality, manners, and Christianity without which even otherwise well-educated people could not truly be successful.

To develop his students’ minds and enrich their souls, this man began writing books. He published his first work, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in 1783, and George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other prominent leaders endorsed it. He gave copies to schools, and educators, realizing its value, ordered more copies of their students. More than 100 million copies of his book have been sold. It has never gone out of print. (How would you like such results for your books?!)

The man was Noah Webster. And the book that was so successful is better known as “The Blue-Backed Speller” because he printed it on poor-quality paper “held together by two broad strips of cloth, between thin wooden boards covered in plain blue paper.”

In 1806, Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language and in 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language. The latter work, which took 27 years to complete, was his greatest effort toward developing a truly American language.

It included 70,000 entries, traced the etymology of each entry, and gave its precise definition. He added new words, especially words unique to American usage.

So strongly did Webster believe in what he was doing that he paid from his own pocket to print the first edition of his dictionary and mortgaged his own home to print the second edition. He later published abridged editions in 1841 and 1847 (posthumously), making his dictionary and the Bible accessible for practically every American home and school in the nation.

Following Webster’s death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam purchased rights to Webster’s dictionary and published in 1847 the first Merriam-Webster dictionary. That book became the nation’s standard authority on American English. (Although many dictionaries call themselves “Webster’s,” only a Merriam-Webster is truly a Webster’s dictionary.)

Today, even dictionaries that carry Webster’s name are far removed from his original. Political correctness, multiculturalism, and moral relativism dominate those volumes. Christianity and morality are no longer central to their purpose.

Yet, Noah Webster’s influence is still felt throughout the English-speaking world. We see it in our rules of spelling, pronunciation, and usage. And his original dictionary and the Blue-Backed Speller are worthy of our attention.

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