Five Fascinating Facts about Noah Webster

Interesting facts about the life and work of the American lexicographer, Noah Webster

1. He was great-uncle to a very famous poet. Noah Webster was the great-uncle of none other than the poet T. S. Eliot. It may not be stretching things too much, in fact, to say that Eliot shared his great-uncle’s fondness for precision, especially when it came to defining words, and even more especially when it came to defining the names we give to important concepts. ‘Can “Education” Be Defined?’ was the title of one of Eliot’s lectures, in 1950. Fittingly, in the same lecture Eliot remarked, ‘people have been very far from agreeing upon a definition of the word “definition”.’ His great-uncle had made definitions his bread-and-butter.

2. Webster’s wasn’t the first American dictionary. As with Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, which entered a crowded marketplace for dictionaries in England in 1755, Noah Webster’s Com­pen­dious Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage was by no means an alien product on the early US book-market. A man named Joseph Worces­ter pub­lished Noah WebsterWorcester’s Com­pre­hen­sive Pro­nounc­ing and Explana­tory Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary in the same year as Webster published his lexicon, but Webster’s – as with Samuel Johnson‘s – was more compendious than its rival and quickly became the definitive word (as it were) on the subject.

3. Webster was involved in an early debate about global warming. He was the author of a pamphlet, Are Our Win­ters Get­ting Warmer (1810), in which he debated with, among others, Thomas Jefferson over climate change in America’s recent history. Also published as On the Supposed Change of in the Temperature of Winter, Webster’s book comprised two speeches he had delivered on the topic of the weather. Webster carefully examined the evidence, concluding that agricultural activity in the United States (such as cutting down forests and creating more fields) had led to subtle changes in the country’s climate.

4. He was also an early opponent of slavery in the United States. Webster was in favour of gradually emancipating African slaves in America. In 1792 he took up the role of secretary of the Hartford anti-slavery society in Connecticut; a year later, he gave a lecture which was later published under the title Effects of Slavery, on Morals and Industry.

5. Noah Webster also set up New York City’s first daily newspaper. In December 1793, Noah Webster founded New York’s first daily newspaper, American Minerva, which later changed its name to the Commercial Advertiser. For the next four years Webster would edit the paper, writing a vast amount of its content himself – the equivalent, in fact, of some 20 volumes of articles and editorials.

Image: Detail of portrait of Noah Webster by James Herring in 1833; Wikimedia Commons; public domain.


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  2. I read a book about Noah Webster. He was an interesting and entrepreneurial figure in early American life. Part of his success was in infiltrating American schools with his primer. I didn’t know about his connection to Eliot!

  3. Another excellent post!! Love the connection with TS Eliot