Noah Webster and the American Dictionary

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About the Book

Noah Webster was described by the publisher of a competing dictionary as “a vain … plodding Yankee, who aspired to be a second Johnson”—a criticism that rings mostly true. He was certainly vain and, born in Connecticut, undeniably a Yankee. Moreover, though he referred to Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language as a “barren desart of philology,” the American lexicographer relied heavily on the book during the creation of his own American Dictionary, going so far as to filch whole sections. And few would seem more “plodding” than Webster, who was positively obsessed with collecting and preserving bits of information. He kept records of the weather, carefully logged the number of houses in every new town he passed through, filed away every scrap of his writing and everything written about him, and filled the margins of his books with references, dates and corrections.
The proud Yankee’s sensibilities, however, also made him a fine lexicographer. Generally credited with distinguishing American spelling and usage from British, Webster shunned prescriptive mores and was doggedly loyal to his own language habits, as well as to those of the average American speaker.
The book covers Webster’s major publications and the influences and methods that shaped them; recounts his life as schoolteacher, copyright law champion, and itinerant lecturer; and examines the Webster legacy. An appendix containing title page reproductions from Webster’s books, as well as some from his predecessors and competitors, is also included.

About the Author(s)

David Micklethwait is a London attorney specializing in intellectual property law.

Bibliographic Details

David Micklethwait
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 358
Bibliographic Info: photos, facsimiles, appendix, notes, index
Copyright Date: 2005 [2000]
pISBN: 978-0-7864-2157-2
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Preface     1

Introduction     9

1. School Teacher and Student of Law, 1778–1782     19

2. Two Earlier Spelling Books     23

3. The Development of the English Dictionary, 1604–1783     33

4. Webster’s Grammatical Institute, Part I     54

5. “Origin of the Copy-right Laws in the United States”     74

6. Webster in Hartford, 1783–1785     81

7. Itinerant Lecturer and Spelling Reformer     93

8. Webster in Phildaelphia, and in Love, 1787     105

9. Webster in New York, 1788     115

10. Brother James’ Beneficiary, 1789–1798     124

11. Webster in New Haven, 1798–1807     130

12. Webster Moves to Amherst     155

13. An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828     171

14. Two More Dictionaries and Another Spelling Book, 1829     199

15. Webster in Washington, 1830–31     211

16. Cobb v. Webster; Webster v. Worcester, 1829–1835     222

17. William Goes West, 1835–1839     234

18. Webster’s Last Years, 1839–1843     246

19. Executors, Heirs, and Renewers     256

20. Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary, 1850     272

21. A Gross Literary Fraud Exposed, 1853–1854     279

22. Thomas Heber Orr and the Process of Primitive Wordgrowth     286

23. Webster’s Pictorial Edition and Worcester’s Dictionary of the English Language, 1859–1860     290

24. The Right to Use the Name “Webster”     299

Notes     309

Appendix     315

Index     347

Book Reviews & Awards

“a fascinating trip, recommended”—Choice; “explores in detail the processes of deciding spelling, pronunciation, and the meanings of words as well as providing a fascinating look at one of the most influential Americans of his time”—Booklist.