Friday, April 14, 2006

April 14: Dictionary Day

Today is the birthday of the man synonymous with the dictionary, Noah Webster. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1758. He went on to graduate from Yale, and work as a lawyer. His most noteworthy work, however, came as a school teacher. Unhappy with the curriculum materials he was given to teach, he created his own uniquely American curriculum: A three-part Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It included a spelling book, a grammar book, and a reader.

Webster served in the student militia at Yale during the Revolutionary War. He never saw combat, but while he was did not fight in the literal battle for independence from Britain, he was a key player in the battle to make American English independent from British English.

His spelling book, known as the "Blue-Backed Speller," became one of the most popular and influential works in American history. Only the Bible sold more copies; according Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, Noah’s spelling book went through at least 300 editions and sold more than sixty million copies. Because of the wide use of his spelling book and his dictionary published in 1828, Webster had a significant impact on the spelling and pronunciation of American English. His dictionary contained more than 70,000 words and was the most complete dictionary of its time.

Many of the distinctive differences in spelling and pronunciation of British words versus English words can be traced back to Webster. For example:

Change of -our to –or in color, honor, labor.

Change of –re to er in center, meter, theater

Change of –cd to se in defense and offense

The change of the British double-L in travelled and traveller to the American traveled, traveler.

Not all of Webster's spelling changes stuck, however. David Grambs, in the book Death by Spelling, lists the following as examples of words that were retracted in later editions of Webster's dictionary: iz, relm, mashine, yeer, bilt, tung, breth, helth, beleeve, and wimmen (3).

After Webster’s death in 1843, the rights to his dictionaries were purchased by Charles and George Merriam. The first volume of their dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary was published in 1847.

After purchasing the rights for use of the Webster name, the Merriam brothers lost legal battles to use the name exclusively. As a result, other dictionaries use the name Webster even though they have no connection to Webster or his original work. As a result of the battle over the Webster name, Merriam-Webster includes the following assurance of quality on its dictionaries.

Not just Webster. Merriam-Webster.™
Other publishers may use the name Webster, but only Merriam-Webster products are backed by 150 years of accumulated knowledge and experience. The Merriam-Webster name is your assurance that a reference work carries the quality and authority of a company that has been publishing since 1831.

The following are examples of other spelling changes made by Webster. They, in a large part, account for the differences in spelling that exist today in British English versus American English:

cheque to check
draught to draft
manoeuvre to maneuver
moustache to mustache
plough to plow
skilful to skillful
mediaeval to medieval
mould to mold (2)

Today's Challenge: Dictionary Day Decalogue
Dictionaries tell us much more than just spelling and definitions. To celebrate Dictionary Day, grab a good dictionary and make a list of at least "Ten Things You Can Find in a Dictionary Besides Spelling and Definitions."

Quote of the Day: All words are pegs to hand ideas on . . . --Henry W. Beecher

1 - Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue. New York: Perennial, 1990.

2 -Reader’s Digest Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language. New York: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1983.

3 - Grambs, David. Death by Spelling: A Compendium of Tests, Super Tests, and Killer Bees. New York: Harper & Row, 1989: 27.

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