TIL that Noah Webster set upon writing ‘An American Dictionary of the English Language’ in 1807. It took him 26 years to write it all himself, including the etymologies, which required that he learn 28 languages. He was plagued by debt to fund the project.

Read more: https://jsomers.net/blog/dictionary

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  1. > The invention of American English
    Noah Webster is not the best-known of the Founding Fathers but he has been called “the father of American scholarship and education.” There’s actually this great history of how he almost singlehandedly invented the very idea of American English, defining the native tongue of the new republic, “rescuing” it from “the clamour of pedantry” imposed by the Brits.

    > He developed a book, the Blue Backed Speller, which was meant to be something of a complete linguistic education for young American kids, teaching them in easy increments how to read, spell, and pronounce words, and bringing them up on a balanced diet of great writing. It succeeded. It was actually the most popular book of its time; by 1890 it had sold 60 million copies.

    > But that wasn’t even Webster’s most ambitious project. Certainly it’s not what he became known for. In 1807, he started writing a dictionary, which he called, boldly, An American Dictionary of the English Language. He wanted it to be comprehensive, authoritative. Think of that: a man sits down, aiming to capture his language whole.

    > Webster’s dictionary took him 26 years to finish. It ended up having 70,000 words. He wrote it all himself, including the etymologies, which required that he learn 28 languages, including Old English, Gothic, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Welsh, Russian, Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit. He was plagued by debt to fund the project; he had to mortgage his home.

    > In his own lifetime the dictionary sold poorly and got little recognition. Today, of course, his name is so synonymous with even the idea of a dictionary that Webster is actually a genericized trademark in the U.S., so that other dictionaries whose contents bear no relation to Webster’s original can use the name just to have the “Webster” brand rub off on them. [1]

  2. And thanks to him when I was a kid (before caller ID) I could call my local library and say:

    Me: do you have Webster’s dictionary?

    Library: yes

    Me: well why don’t you give it back to him?

  3. This is so cool!

    On a similar note, the book about how the Oxford Dictionary was written is also fascinating. The largest contributor was a schizophrenic murderer who was locked up in a mental institution.

    It’s called the Professor and the Madman and it’s a great read.

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