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The Dictionary Wars II: Webster vs. Worcester

A battle between two Dictionaries captures the imaginations of pre-Civil War America

We talked last time about Noah Webster, the humorless, dry, arrogant father of the American dictionary. But Americans have always had a soft spot in their heart for outcasts and underdogs. Maybe you're pulling for the old religious nutcase to at least get filthy rich off the self-serving and inaccurate Dictionary that bears his name to this day. The guy invented the term "American language" for goodness' sake.[1] But you're probably forgetting what really runs this country. Americans will sue to take nativity scenes from town halls and menorahs from city parks but "In God We Trust" is emblazoned all over every single dollar we print. Noah got the equation wrong. God may make sure the money works but He only helps those who help themselves. It's not like Webster didn't have the chance. In fact, he had two.

Unbeknownst to most, Noah was famous before his eponymous Dictionary for a spelling textbook, one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century. The last piece of a tripartite work on grammar, reading and spelling, the famous "Blue-Black Speller", so named because of its binding, was a regular American institution. In his masterwork on the dictionary makers, Chasing the Sun, Jonathan Green records the observation of a contemporary: it became "not only a universal textbook in the schools and the master book on spelling everywhere, but a standard article of commerce and, like sugar and salt, was kept in the stores along with the gingham and the calico."[2] People like John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates who establish themselves as the suppliers of 'standard articles of commerce' tend to make out like bandits. But Noah blew it.[3] Two hundred nine companies published the speller and, according to Webster, averaged 250,000 in sales per year. Writing to the Hudson and Hartford publishing company in 1818, Noah sold his future rights to the book for 14 years based on these figures. Not a bad advance, really. By 1840, the Yankee publishers had pushed out over thirty million copies, and were printing 525 more every hour. After a century, more than eighty million copies were on the streets of America, and not a nickel of profit in Noah's pockets.

Let's Get Ready to Rumble!

Was he getting his come-uppance for being, as H. L. Mencken put it, "not only a pedagogue, but a Calvinist and a foe of democracy?" Who knows? History's not really a morality play. Certainly, being puritanical wasn't a compelling value proposition -- his Bowdlerized Bible was a big flop. Did he learn his lesson from the Speller when his Dictionary met with such success? Well, kids, that's where we get into what is actually, really known as The Dictionary Wars.

Success always brings competition, in this case the proud antagonist Joseph Emerson Worcester. At first glance, Noah and Joseph should have gotten along splendidly. Worcester was a strict Calvinist fundamentalist, had attended Yale, and was a schoolteacher. In fact he had not been allowed to go to school until he was fourteen, kept on the family farm as he was with his no less than fourteen brothers and sisters.[4] Worcester started off rather more modestly than Webster, choosing to edit rather than rewrite. His mark on the concisely titled Johnson's English Dictionary as improved by Todd and abridged by Chalmers, with Walker's Pronouncing Dictionary Combined was generally regarded as positive. But he really made a splash in 1829 when he decided to abridge Webster himself.

Joseph was full of praise for his elder's book, calling it "a work of vast learning and research... comprising numerous and great improvement upon all works of the kind."[5] His unfettered praises were no doubt also a result of the $2000 he earned doing it. Unsurprisingly, Webster didn't like it a bit. His Dictionary was not merely a list of words to be revised objectively! Rather it was a sacred statement of the American language and the power of the common man. By God, no meddling kid was going to get away with such a roughshod revision.

Well, then as now, things moved slowly in the publishing world. A year later, Worcester published his own work, the Comprehensive, Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary with the aim of appealing to both Webster's common-man audience and Johnson's ivory-tower audience. The dictionary was a high quality work, to be sure, but caused little uproar until November 26, 1834 when an anonymous letter was fired off to The Palladium, a Massachusetts magazine of high society.

A gross plagiarism has been committed by Mr. J. E. Worcester on the literary property of Noah Webster, Esq. It is well known that Webster has spent a life, which is now somewhat advanced, in writing a dictionary of the English language... To aid in the drudgery of providing... abridgements, Mr. Webster employed Mr. Worcester who after becoming acquainted with Mr. Webster's plan, immediately went about appropriating to his own benefit the valuable labors, acquisitions and productions of Mr. Webster. He has since published a dictionary which is a very close imitation of Webster's; and which, we regret to learn, has since been introduced into many of the primary schools of the country... If we had a statute which could fix its grasp on those who pilfer the products of the mind, as readily as our laws embrace the common thief, Mr. Worcester would hardly escape with a light mulct...[6]

It's All About the Benjamins

And so we get to the meat of it. No matter how religiously Webster may have felt about the language, the fact was he was being shut out of the market for new dictionary sales! Worcester's response of December 10 was by all accounts, measured and levelheaded. He noted he had started work on his Dictionary before entering Noah's employment. But Webster was too far gone and wrote a letter himself, accusing Worcester of stealing hundreds of definitions. The accusations and defenses flew for months. According to a contemporary, "Worcester's defense [was] a good deal more impressive than Webster's accusations, which tend to grow querulous... and reveal clearly that the older man felt his livelihood endangered by the popular acceptance of [Worcester's Dictionary]."[7] The poor man must have felt all his friends had turned on him. Harvard literati and upper-class buyers who had heralded his original work as a great statement of the American tongue were much happier with Worcester's middle of the road dictionary and snapped it up in vast quantities. A hasty revision in 1841 did little to make any money for Noah, and he died a bitter man.

Some issues have a way of polarizing a society. The Worcester vs. Webster debate resonated deeply with a pre-Civil War America.

Worcester vs. Webster came to mean no only linguistic conservatives and moderates vs radicals and liberals, but, with some inevitable extremist distortion and oversimplification, Anglophiles vs. Americanizers, Boston-Cambridge-Harvard vs. New Haven-Yale, upperclass elegance vs. underbred Yankee uncouthness.[8]

In a country where every immigrant felt obliged to get a dictionary to learn to speak good English, the benefits of owning the standard Dictionary were tremendous. Had less money been involved, the battle would have been much less heated, we suppose.

It was not the first time an idealist would be clobbered by a pragmatist. In part III we'll finally talk about the height of the battle and those rooting for the underdog will be satisfied to learn the unctuous (and dead) Webster gets the last laugh after all.


  1. Green, p.327
  2. Green, p.309
  3. Green, p.309. As a side note, we should mention that huge passages of Webster's speller were lifted straight from the past spelling authority, the oddly named Aby-Sel-pha Speller. Noah's biggest fan H. L. Mencken again wryly notes, Webster was "sufficiently convinced of its merits to imitate it, even to the extent of lifting whole passages." We have ratted on poor old Noah on this count enough, however.
  4. Whatever Calvinist fundamentalism taught in those days it obviously left some latitude for evening entertainment. Be fruitful and multiply, indeed!
  5. Green, p.327
  6. Green, p.329
  7. Green, p.239
  8. Green, p.331


  1. Jonathon Green. Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made. Henry Holt, 1996.
  2. Bill Bryson. The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. Avon Books, 1990.

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