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It Took Noah Webster 22 Years To Publish His First Dictionary

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National Dictionary Day is observed annually on October 16.

Celebrate by learning a little bit of dictionary history and about Noah Webster: In 1806, American Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language; it took twenty-seven years to complete. To evaluate the etymology of words, Webster learned twenty-six languages, including Old English (Anglo-Saxon), German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit.

Webster completed his dictionary during his year abroad in Paris, France, at the University of Cambridge.  His book contained seventy thousand words, of which twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before.

As a spelling reformer, he believed that the English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex so in his dictionary he introduced American English spellings, replacing “colour” with “color”, substituting “wagon” for “waggon” and printing “center” instead of “centre”.  Webster also added American words such as “skunk” and “squash” that did not appear in British dictionaries.  He believed The United States “should be as independent in literature as she is in politics.”  Some of his changes didn’t catch on, however.  Dropping the silent “e” at the end of some words like the word imagine.

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Webster took a more phonetic approach to the development of his dictionary. Interestingly, the word didn’t appear when Webster published his dictionary in 1828 at the age of seventy. However, of the 70,000 entries, the word phonics is one. The dictionary sold 2500 copies. In 1840, the second edition was published in two volumes. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary is available online.  By entering the modern-day spelling, the website will produce Webster’s 1828 version.

National Dictionary Day was created in honor of Noah Webster’s birthday (October 16, 1758) and was set aside as a day to emphasize the importance of learning and using dictionary skills and increasing one’s vocabulary. Webster is considered the Father of the American Dictionary.

  • IT TOOK HIM 22 YEARS TO COMPLETE (FOR GOOD REASON).  Webster reportedly finished compiling his dictionary in 1825, and continued to edit and improve it for a further three years; he was 70 years old when his American Dictionary of the English Language was finally published in 1828. There was good reason for the delay, however: Webster had learned 26 languages—including the likes of Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Old English—in the process.
  • IT WAS THE BIGGEST DICTIONARY EVER WRITTEN. Webster’s 37,000-word Compendious Dictionary (1806) had listed around 5000 entries fewer than what was at the time the longest English dictionary available: Samuel Johnson’s 42,000-word Dictionary of the English Language (1755). But with the publication of the American Dictionary, Johnson’s record was obliterated: running to two volumes, Webster’s 1828 dictionary defined a staggering 70,000 words, around half of which had never been included in an English dictionary before.
  • SOME OF THE WORDS WERE MAKING THEIR DEBUTS IN PRINT. Besides recommending updating English spelling, Webster made a point of including a number of quintessentially American words in his dictionaries, many of which had never been published in dictionaries before. Among them were the likes of skunk, hickory, applesauce, opossum, chowder and succotash.
  • WORDS BEGINNING WITH X WERE SUDDENLY A THING. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary had contained no words at all beginning with X. (“X is a letter,” he wrote at the bottom of page 2308, “which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”) Webster’s 1806 Compendious Dictionary increased that figure by one with xebec, the name of a type of Mediterranean sailing vessel. But in his American Dictionary, Webster included a total of 13 entries under X


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