Our First Words
When you don’t know a word, a teacher or parent may tell you to “look it up!” And today, that can involve going to a smartphone or computer for the definition, or meaning.
Your parents and grandparents looked up words in a dictionary (DIK-shuh-nair-ee) — a book that lists in alphabetical order words and their meanings, origins, or beginnings, and
pronunciations, or how to say them. The first dictionaries were written in the 1500s and 1600s by British writers, clergymen and editors. These lexicographers* concentrated on “hard words” and sometimes on translations of foreign words.
New country, new words
Born in Connecticut in 1758, Noah Webster became a teacher. He lived through the American Revolution and was loyal to the United States, and he believed that American subjects and styles should be included in books. He thought this would make America more independent, or free, from England.
Webster also thought American children should have American textbooks. In 1783, he finished “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language,” which got the nickname the “Bluebacked Speller.” It was a textbook that helped kids learn to read, spell and pronounce words. The “Speller” was the most popular book of its time, selling about 100million copies.
An American dictionary
While he was working on the “Speller,” NoahWebster realized that people in the United States were using different words to describe their new government and laws. He decided to write an American dictionary.
He started his dictionary in 1801 and finished in 1828, 190 years ago. “An American Dictionary of the English Language” gave the meanings of more than 70,000 words! Webster also included the words’ pronunciations and histories.
What took so long?
NoahWebster’s dictionary took 27 years to write. He had to do a lot of research. Most of the words we use today come from other languages, such as Latin or French. Webster learned 26 languages so that he could figure out the origins of our words.
Today, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has more than 225,000 definitions — more than three times as many as Webster’s original book.
Mini Fact: Webster published a shorter edition of his original dictionary in 1806, with about 40,000 words.