Friday, October 16, 2009

Divinipotent About Dictionary Day

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.”
~ Noah Webster

Today is Dictionary Day, created to honor Noah Webster, who was born October 16, 1753. Dictionary Day is a major holiday for Divinipotent Daily. This entire enterprise is a response to Oxford English Dictionaries' campaign to save endangered words (including divinipotent). The goal is to get words like divinipotent into more common use and back into more dictionaries. Merriam-Webster, are you listening?

"Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."
~ Samuel Johnson

Noah Webster was born in Hartford, Connecticut, approximately two decades before the American Revolution. He was a descendant of two Colonial governors, John Webster of Connecticut and William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. He attended Yale College and, after graduating in 1778, became a teacher. Given the revolutionary spirit of the times (and Webster's membership in the Connecticut militia), it's not surprising he decided American students should learn from American books.

Wikipedia's Noah Webster entry includes this note: "The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was, 'the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions,' which meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language."

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.”
~ Stephen Wright

Webster's first textbook was the three-volume A Grammatical Institute of the English Language; consisting of a speller, a grammar book and a reader, it was published in 1785. The speller was renamed The American Spelling Book in 1786  and changed again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. In addition to improving the vocabularies and literacy of American children, the book is said to have been a key inspiration for spelling bees.

Webster published his first formal dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806, when he was 42. The following year he began work on An American Dictionary of the English Language, an exhaustive work that took 27 years to complete.

"Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."
~ Samuel Johnson

Merriam-Webster Online notes that Webster's belief in a distinctive American language led to innovations: "He was the first to document distinctively American vocabulary such as skunk, hickory, and chowder. Reasoning that many spelling conventions were artificial and needlessly confusing, he urged altering many words: musick to music, centre to center, and plough to plow, for example." Less successful: efforts to change the spelling of tongue to tung and women to wimmen.

Beyond writing dictionaries, Webster was a devout Christian whose intolerant views on other religions show that even a writer of dictionaries has a lot to learn.

“DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.”
~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

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