From the NY Times' "Back Story" feature (April 14, 2016)
Teachers have been correcting errors in written language from time immemorial, and one colonial American was so bothered by the dismal state of English instruction, he devoted most of his life to improving it.
Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published on this day in 1828. He was nearly 70 at the time of his crowning achievement.
After the American Revolution, Webster was a young teacher in Connecticut, where children learned from British textbooks in one-room schoolhouses.
At the time, spelling was plagued by inconsistencies. That bothered him. To start, he eliminated “u” from words like “colour” and “honour.”
That was a change introduced in what would come to be known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” because of its blue cover. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. For his next project, he hoped to give the U.S. a kind of national independence in language.
A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) further Americanized British spellings, like swapping the order of the “r” and “e” in “theatre” and “centre.” It also cataloged words in use, but not listed in any dictionary, like “caucus,” “census” and “presidential.”
An additional 22 years of work produced his 70,000-entry behemoth, including 5,000 words never before included in an English lexicon. By the time he died in 1843, he had largely united the country in language.
[Expanding on the Times' article, this publication went on to become the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which is one of the base sources (along with the Chicago Manual of Style) used by most editors and publishing houses.]