Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.


DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: In reading a short biography of Noah Webster, I was impressed by the number of languages he learned (27?) in order to trace the etymology of the words in his dictionaries. Surely with that sort of dedication and passion for the cataloging of words, we who speak American English owe him a great deal. Yes? –Dan Hoffman, Jamul

Yes indeed, we sure do owe Noah Webster (1758-1843) a great deal. He was variously called “Schoolmaster to the Nation,” “The Father of American Scholarship and Education” and “The Forgotten Founding Father.”

Webster saw the untapped promise of the new republic. He was afire with the conviction that a United States no longer politically dependent on England should also become independent in language. In his Dissertations on the English Language, published in 1789, Webster declared linguistic war on the King’s English: “As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline.”

In putting his vision into practice, Noah Webster traveled throughout America, listening to people’s speech and taking detailed notes. He included in his dictionaries an array of shiny new American words, among them applesauce, bullfrog, chowder, handy, hickory, succotash, tomahawk — and skunk: “a quadruped remarkable for its smell.”

Webster also proudly used quotations by Americans to illustrate and clarify many of his definitions. The likes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Jay and Washington Irving took their places as authorities alongside William Shakespeare, John Milton and the Bible. In shaping the American language, Webster also taught a new nation a new way to spell. He deleted the u from words such as honour, humour and labour and the k from the likes of musick and publick. He also reversed the last two letters in words such as centre and theatre, and he Americanized the spelling of words such as waggon, plough and gaol.

Noah Webster was truly a Renaissance man, a genius who seemed able to master every field of knowledge he sought to cultivate. In addition to his popularity as a writer of spellers, grammars and dictionaries, he was a publisher, school teacher, salesman, lawyer, political theorist and expert on epidemics that had recently swept the United States.

His first fame came to him, at the age of 25, as the author of The Blue-Backed Speller, a book more widely read than any other in America, only the Bible excepted. When the Speller went out of print in 1900, 70 million copies had been circulated.

From 1798 to 1828, Webster devoted himself entirely to what would be the crowning achievements of his busy life, his dictionaries. In 1806 he published his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and for the next 22 years he worked to expand and improve that lexicon, learning 26 languages (by my count), including Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Greek, Hebrew and Latin, and collecting 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had never been in a dictionary before. Webster published the result, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828, when he was 70.

Perhaps the most enduring gift that Webster brought to the art of lexicography (dictionary making) was the writing style of his definitions, which were more clearly and directly expressed than those reposing in any other dictionary, British or American. Until Noah Webster’s work, the great lexical authority was the Englishman Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which Webster criticized for its imprecise etymologies, erratic definitions and irrelevance to American vocabulary and idiom.

Shortly after Noah Webster’s death, on May 28, 1843, Charles and George Merriam, of Springfield, Mass., purchased most of the publication rights of Webster’s estate. Merriam-Webster has long been the largest dictionary and reference book company in the world, and the massive Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961) is the direct descendant of Noah Webster’s mind and spirit.

The name Webster has passed into public domain and become practically synonymous with the word dictionary, as in “according to Webster.” But most Americans think that it was Daniel Webster (orator, congressman and secretary of state) who compiled the dictionaries. So let us remember Noah Webster and his unsurpassed contributions to our American language, the man who gave a young nation a voice to sing of itself.