Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


War of the Dictionaries

The Georgian brick building of the Merriam-Webster company on Federal Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, is considered by some world headquarters of the English language.  Scholars, heads of state and judges alike often deem the Merriam-Webster dictionary the final authority in spelling, pronunciation and definition.  That standing is the outcome of winning a long-fought conflict over a century ago. The company’s founders were brothers George and Charles Merriam, young printers who settled in Springfield in 1831 to print and sell books.  Their shop specialized in school books, Bibles and, curiously, wall papers.  The second-floor presses produced titles stocked by stores in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

A short distance down the Connecticut River from Springfield, Noah Webster of Hartford, Connecticut, had published his American Dictionary of the English Language.  His unwieldy two-volume set was not well received; the figures of intellect in Boston balked at the author’s vision of an American representation of the English language.  With guarded optimism Webster tried a second edition, but found himself with a stack of unsold books and mounting debt.  After his death, his heirs sold the remaining copies and all rights to Webster’s white elephant.  The buyers, the savvy booksellers Merriam, promptly reduced the price.  The move was applauded by the Springfield Daily Republican on January 10, 1845:

War of the Dictionaries


The Connecticut Webster on Slavery

The pure-bred New Englander revered the Constitution. Though the eloquent statesman hated slavery, he sought to eradicate this evil without destroying the union. Division was anathema to him, as could perhaps be guessed from his ancestral name, Webster, which means “uniter” in Anglo-Saxon. And some three score and eight years before the outbreak of the Civil War, whose 150th anniversary we commemorated last spring, he advocated a moderate course designed to steer clear of bloodshed.

The man’s first name was Noah—not Daniel—and he hailed from Hartford. While his younger cousin, the Massachusetts legislator, would repeatedly take up the same mantle on the Senate floor, most notably in an impassioned speech on behalf of the Missouri Compromise in 1850, Noah Webster first spoke out against “the violated rights of humanity” back when Daniel was still in grade school.

The Connecticut Webster on Slavery


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