Noah Webster Fêted for 250th Birthday

Both the well-known and less-celebrated achievements of Noah Webster, creator of the first comprehensive American dictionary, will be celebrated at Yale on October 16–17 in commemoration of his 250th birthday.

The two-day fête, titled “Shaping a Language, Defining a Nation,” will feature a variety of entertaining and interactive educational events. Some of the highlights are:

  • A celebration on Thursday afternoon on Beinecke Plaza, 105 Wall St., that includes: “Eating Your Words,” a giveaway of free birthday cupcakes iced with words, 1 p.m.; “Too Marvelous for Words,” a birthday serenade; the distribution of free dictionaries to Wexler Grant School fourth-graders; and a public reading of Governor Jodi Rell’s official proclamation declaring October 16, “Noah Webster Day,” 2 p.m.
  • Lectures by noted historians and public figures in Rm. 102 of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, 63 High St., including: lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, 3:30 p.m. on Thursday; New Yorker contributor and Harvard professor Jill Lepore, 4:15 p.m. on Thursday; and celebrated pollster Stan Greenberg, 3:30 p.m. on Friday.
  • A visit to Webster’s burial site at Grove Street Cemetery guided by Yale archivist Judith Schiff, 11:15 a.m. on Friday. (Meet in Sterling Memorial Library lecture hall, 120 York St.) An exhibition of Webster memorabilia and documents will also be on display at Sterling Memorial Library through November 30.
  • Complimentary chowder, cornbread and apple crisp and conversation with Joshua Kendall, author of a biography of Thesaurus compiler Peter Roget and a forthcoming life of Webster, 12:30 p.m. on Friday at the New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Ave. Reservations for the refreshments are required. Contact Hosley, or (203) 562-4183, ext 11 by October 9.

Unless otherwise indicated, all of the above are free and open to the public. Vist the web site for a full schedule of talks.

West Hartford native and Yale alumnus (B.A., 1778; M.A., 1781; and Honorary LL.D., 1823), Webster is most commonly known for his “American Dictionary of the English Language” (first published, 1828), but he was also a versatile intellectual and influential reformer whose diverse pursuits ran from the study of infectious diseases and climatology to revising the King James translation of the Bible.  He introduced and campaigned for the adoption of copyright laws, established and edited a New York newspaper, and was a founder of Amherst College. An ardent patriot, and friend of George Washington, Webster credited his 1785 tract “Sketches of American Policy” as paving the way for the Constitution.

It was, though, his shaping and codifying the vernacular language of the United States that won him immortality. Webster’s scholarship was goaded by the belief that, in the words of his biographer Harlow Unger, “national unity depended on linguistic unity, with all Americans speaking a single common language.” As a pioneering lexicographer, Webster not only made such quintessentially New World words as “skunk,” “hickory,” “raccoon,” “butternut squash,” and “chowder” part of the English language, he also liberated American spellers from the British “u” in “colour,” the French “re” of “centre,” and the redundant “k” of “musick.”

Some four decades before Webster produced the dictionary, he had already made his mark as a pedagogue in classrooms across the new nation with the “American Spelling Book” – known to the generations of school children who learned grammar, usage and correct orthography from its pages as the “blue-backed speller.”

“Shaping a Language, Defining a Nation” is sponsored by a consortium of organizations and enterprises, which includes The Harvard Lectureship; Merriam-Webster Inc, Yale University Office of New Haven and State Affairs and New Haven Museum.