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A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language
Noah Webster (1758-1843)
Hartford: From Sidney’s Press, for Hudson & Goodwin, Book-sellers; New-Haven: Increase Cooke & Co., Book-sellers, 1806
First edition
PE1625 W3 1806

Noah Webster’s goal was to produce an “American” dictionary. He envisioned something bigger and better than the English pocket dictionaries that were the standard fare of the time in the new United States. Webster was an enthusiastic patriot. He wanted to use the dictionary to promote national unity and cultural independence from Britain.

Influenced by his friend Benjamin Franklin, Webster worked for “a reformed mode of spelling” but rejected the radical phonetic innovations proposed by Franklin. He did make enough changes, however, to produce a distinct American spelling for some words.

This American spelling first appeared in the Compendious Dictionary. It was immediately adopted by American printers. Webster was struck by the inconsistencies of English spelling. His spelling reform was based upon a combined sense of logic and aesthetics. He changed the ‘-ce’ in words like defence and offence to ‘–se;’ abandoned the second silent “l” in verbs such as travel and cancel when forming the past tense; dropped the “u” from words such as humour and colour; and dropped the “k” from words such as publick. Webster included thousands of words – chowder, hickory, skunk, subsidize, and caucus, for instance – which were in daily use in America but not listed in any lexicon.

John Quincy Adams, a future president, was shocked by some of these “vulgarisms.” Appended to the Dictionary, Webster included a list of the Post Offices in the United States, the number of its inhabitants, and the amount of its exports.