Laurie Quay is Editorial Assistant at Kappa Delta Pi.
Today, October 16, is Dictionary Day. It celebrates the birthday of Noah Webster, the founding father of dictionaries, who was born on this day in 1758. While this day probably—okay, definitely—isn’t circled on your calendar, it reminds us to give homage to a most valuable, yet unappreciated treasure. This trusted volume of spellings, pronunciations, and definitions never disappoints.
My own dictionary—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition—sits on my desk next to a few other reference books. Its pages may be worn and its binding in disrepair, but it answers my questions on a near-daily basis. Admittedly, I need to spring for the 11th edition, the current version with several thousand more entries, but I’ve become rather attached to this one.
To do this day any justice, though, it is worthwhile to note some interesting facts about Noah Webster and his dictionary:
- His first job after graduating from Yale University, post-Revolutionary War, was teaching! He decried that his students’ books still came from England and wrote his own textbook, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. This “speller” became the most used textbook in America and helped to standardize pronunciation across the country.
- Webster’s first dictionary was called A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language and became known as “Webster’s Dictionary.” It was his later effort, American Dictionary of the English Language, that became his most famous work.
- He wanted Americans to have their own vocabulary, apart from the English language of the British. We can thank Webster for changing colour to color, centre to center, plough to plow, and so on.
- The American Dictionary took Webster 28 years to complete! It was published in 1828 and contained 70,000 words.
The world has obviously changed since Webster’s days. Instant communication, social media speak, and 140-character thought processes dominate our culture. I doubt Webster would have foreseen words like selfie, tweet, and hashtag taking up residence in his great book, let alone that we’d look up words electronically.
But is Webster turning over in his grave because of our evolving lexicon and technological advances? I would like to think not. After all, he was a forward thinker who appreciated new words and advocated for expanding our vocabulary. And hopefully, for as long as people need to know what words mean and how they are spelled, dictionaries—both print and electronic—will remain indispensable. I, for one, would be lost without mine.
So, grab a dictionary and learn some new words; use them in conversation. Noah Webster would’ve liked that. Happy birthday, Mr. Webster, from word-lovers everywhere!