The American Dictionary Wars and Joseph Emerson Worcester of Bedford NH (1784-1865)

Signature of Joseph Emerson Worcester from a letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1826.

The first American dictionary was not created by Noah Webster as many believe, but rather by Samuel Johnson who was born in Guilford CT in 1757. His dictionary was the first to include simpler forms of spelling in use today, with words such as arbor, fervor and program. Edward O’Brien of New Haven published Johnson’s work in 1797.

In 1828 Noah Webster published “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” the same year that Joseph Emerson Worcester edited Todd and Chalmers’ Johnson’s English Dictionary and published “Outlines of Scripture Geography.”  In 1830 Joseph Worcester published “Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language.”

Likeness of Joseph Emerson Worcester from History of the Town of Hollis, New Hampshire, etc. by Samuel Thomas Worcester, 1879.

Both Webster and Worcester were graduates of Yale University, and both men were in their seventies when they published their dictionaries (Webster was 70, Worcester was 74). They were also highly competitive with each other.  Over a span of several  years published new and improved versions of their dictionaries.

Noah Webster accused Joseph Worcester of plagiarizing his work, but apparently it was never proven.  The book, “Noah Webster’s place among English lexicographers,” by F. Sturges states that Joseph Worcester was trained in lexicography by Noah Webster. Stuges goes on to say that Worcester’s work “has been practically without influence on modern lexicography, except in the matter of accept pronunciations...”

As for the Dictionary Wars — when Joseph E. Worcester died the “wars” ended.  The publishing world went on to edit Webster’s works and Joseph Worcester’s dictionary faded into near obscurity.  Lippincott’s Correspondence Dictionary of 1910 was based on on his work.

But dictionary writing was not Joseph E. Worcester’s only accomplishment. He wrote histories and geographies, and corresponded with some of the famous and educated people of his day. He was a tutor for the noted author, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Books image from book, Lincoln the Lawyer, by Frederick Trevor Hill, 1906.

Joseph E. Worcester’s obituary in  The Big Blue Union (Marysville, Kansas) newspaper of 18 Nov 1865, page 1, describes his many accomplishments: “DEATH OF THE AUTHOR OF WORCESTER’S DICTIONARY. Joseph Emerson Worcester, L: L.D., the noted American Lexicographer, died at Cambridge, Mass., recently. Dr. Worcester was born at Bedford, New Hampshire, August 24, 1784, graduated at Yale College in 1811, and for several years afterwards taught in Salem. In 1817 he published a “Geographical Dictionary, or Universal Gazetteer;” in 1818, a “Gazetteer of the United States;” in 1819, “Elements of Geography, Ancient and Modern;” in 1820, “Epitome of Geography;” in 1823, “Sketches of the Earth and its Inhabitants;” in 1826, “Elements of History, Ancient and Modern,” “Epitome of History,” and “Outlines of Scripture Geography.” In 1827 he bought out an edition of “Johnson’s English Dictionary, as improved by Todd and abridged by Charlmes, with Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary compared.” In 1828 he prepared an abridgement of Webster’s “American Dictionary.” In 1830 he published a “Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Diction,” in 1846 a “Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language;” in 1855 a “Pronouncing Explanatory and Synonymous Dictionary;” and in 1860 his chief work, “A Dictionary of the English Language.” Dr. Worcester also published a “Spelling Book of the English language,” “Remarks on Longevity,” etc, and was the literary editor of “The American Almanac” from 1831 to 1843 inclusive.”

Joseph E. Worcester is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, with a cenotaph also placed in South Cemetery, both in Cambridge Massachusetts.  His tombstone reads:

Joseph Emerson Worcester was the one of the sixteen children of Jesse & Sarah (Parker) Worcester, born in Bedford, Hillsborough Co., New Hampshire on 24 August 1784. “Jesse Worcester and Sarah, his wife, res. in the northwest part of the town, where Benjamin W. Nichols now lives. The old house was long since taken down, but portions of it were rebuilt into and can still be seen in the house now on the farm (1908). Seven ch. were b. here.” [History of Bedford NH, by Town of Bedford, 1900). Jesse Worcester gave the land for the Joppa Graveyard (aka West Parish cemetery) to the town of Bedford NH.

The ancestors (genealogy) of Joseph Emerson Worcester can be found in the book, “The Worcester family, or, The descendants of Rev. William Worcester,” by Jonathan Fox Worcester, pub 1856


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7 Responses to The American Dictionary Wars and Joseph Emerson Worcester of Bedford NH (1784-1865)

  1. I only recently discovered your blog and enjoy it very much. But I believe you are in error in stating Samuel Johnson was American. He was born and died in England (1709-1784), and wrote the first comprehensive English dictionary. Noah Webster’s claim to fame was that he was the first to make a record of American words and meanings, and was an advocate for simplified, more phonetic spellings.

    • Janice Brown says:


      First, thank you so much for reading my blog stores and commenting.

      I believe you and I are talking about two separate men named Samuel Johnson. My blog story is specific to American authors of American dictionaries. My Samuel Johnson was born in 1696 in Guilford CT and died in 1772. He was a clergyman and educator among his many talents. If you can show me some evidence, besides what you have just stated that you are more correct, please add another comment. Again thank you.

  2. Amy says:

    Very interesting, Janice! Imagine—we could today be saying Worcester’s dictionary. And probably mispronouncing it. Webster is a lot simpler to say!

  3. Michael says:

    For all the spelling variations I’ve run into in my family history research of that era, it’s surprising to learn that there were in fact dictionary wars. Makes you wonder who the buying audience was in those days when books were presumably expensive.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Michael, well my research showed that editors and literary men bought and used them. Worcester disapproved of Webster’s pronunciations and “Americanizing” the dictionary while Worcester was much more conservative and exacting. He was almost the first dictionary writer to produce a pictorial edition of his dictionary, but Webster’s publishers learned of it and quickly published their own version before Worcester could. You can see how cut throat the dictionary war was at the time.

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