September 24, 1847

First Merriam-Webster Dictionary Published in Springfield

On this day in 1847, Charles and George Merriam of Springfield published the first edition of The American Dictionary of the English Language. Four years earlier, the brothers had decided to take a major risk. The great lexicographer Noah Webster had just died, leaving behind a large stock of expensive, unsold dictionaries. They purchased the books and the right to publish any revisions. Priced at $6.00, the new, shorter edition was an immediate success. Massachusetts ordered a copy for every school in the state. Building on Noah Webster's original idea that the American nation needed a dictionary that reflected its distinctive use of the English language, Merriam-Webster's has been setting the standards for American English for the past 150 years.

His book included and so legitimated distinctly American words such as "skunk," "squash," "hickory," and "chowder."

A schoolboy was once introduced to the great orator Daniel Webster and told to shake hands. The spunky lad looked up at Webster and asked, "Are you the man who wrote the book with so many horrid spelling lessons? If so, I don't want to shake your hand!" Like so many people, the boy had confused the orator Daniel Webster with the lexicographer Noah Webster. It was Noah, not Daniel, who wrote the book that was the standard speller for generations of Americans — and the bane of so many school children. Noah followed the speller with a dictionary so popular that the name "Webster's" became synonymous with dictionary.

Noah Webster was a Connecticut man, born in West Hartford and educated at Yale. Growing up during the Revolution, he was fired with the ideals of democracy and nationhood. After the war, he became a schoolteacher and dreamed, in the words of historian Henry Steele Commager, of becoming "schoolmaster to the nation." His goal was not just to educate young Americans but to foster in them a commitment to a democratic national culture.

"Are you the man who wrote the book with so many horrid spelling lessons? If so, I don't want to shake your hand!"

His first project was to develop a standardized, distinctly American language. There was little regularity in the way words were spelled, even by well-educated men and women. Benjamin Franklin once sniffed that he "had no use for a man with but one spelling for a word."

But Webster saw the issue as an important one for a new nation. In his speller, traditional English spellings such as "colour" and "musick" were replaced with the simpler "color" and "music." His book included and so legitimated distinctly American words such as "skunk," "squash," "hickory," and "chowder." He changed many spellings to make them more phonetic, convinced that simpler spelling would help unify a diverse people. He hoped that standard spelling would eliminate regional differences in pronunciation. The first edition of his "blue backed speller" was published in 1783. It was an instant bestseller and a fixture in American classrooms well into the late nineteenth century.

In 1800 Noah Webster proposed to compile a "Dictionary of the American Language" that would reflect "the considerable differences between the American and English languages." The idea met with scorn. Critics made fun of the "Nue Merrykin Dikshunary," insisting it was "perfectly absurd to talk of the American language."

Critics made fun of the "Nue Merrykin Dikshunary," insisting it was "perfectly absurd to talk of the American language."

Webster was undeterred. Over the next quarter century, he produced a work that included over 70,000 words with their origins. To escape what he called the "dissipations and expenditures" of New Haven, in 1812 he moved his family to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he remained for the next decade. There in the quiet college town, he worked on the mammoth, two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language.

By the time it was completed in 1828, the dictionary was greeted with respect, even reverence. But it was not a commercial success. The price tag was astronomical for those times — $15 to $20 — and the book sold poorly. When Webster died in 1843, he left behind a large stock of unsold volumes. Springfield printers Charles and George Merriam saw an opportunity. The brothers acquired the rights to Webster's dictionary. They planned to produce a low-cost edition, which they believed would sell well in a nation that placed increasing value on literacy.

They were right. The Merriam brothers became rich men. The publishing tradition they began has continued uninterrupted through 13 editions of the dictionary.

When the book was updated in 1961, The Atlantic Monthly called it "a calamity," while the New York Times accused the publisher of "betraying the public trust" and "lowering the standards of language."

When the copyright expired on the name "Webster" in the late nineteenth century, other publishers rushed to put the name on their dictionaries. Merriam went to court to compel companies using "Webster" to disclaim any connection to the original publisher. In 1982 the company officially changed its name from C. & G. Merriam to Merriam-Webster Inc. to draw attention to its ties to Noah Webster.

The Merriam-Webster editorial board has long acted as the arbiter of correct American English, deciding which words and spellings would be included in the dictionary. This process has not been free from controversy. When the book was updated in 1961, The Atlantic Monthly called it "a calamity," while the New York Times accused the publisher of "betraying the public trust" and "lowering the standards of language." But the editors at Merriam insisted that dictionaries should not dictate the development of language but accept its natural evolution and record its actual use. Merriam's editorial policy has made the Springfield-based dictionary a truly American reference. Noah Webster would be pleased.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western region of Massachusetts.

Sources

"Noah's Mark: Webster and the Original Dictionary Wars," by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker, November 6, 2006.

"The Spirit of Knowledge: A Look at New England Printers," by Jack Larkin, Old Sturbridge Village Visitor, 1982.

Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America, by Harry Warfel (MacMillan Company, 1936).

"My Father's History and Family," by Homer Merriam; a history of the Merriam family printers of Brookfield, from the collections of Old Sturbridge Village.

Merriam-Webster Online

A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States, by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 2002).

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