- Genine Babakian
A National Day for Lovers of Language
Be merry, linguaphiles – it’s National Dictionary Day! And while it also happens to be National Cheese Curd Day, I Love Lucy Day, and Clean Your Virtual Desktop Day, that need not dilute the celebration for word lovers.
So many days! Do we really need all of them? I, for one, don’t require any prodding to appreciate a good cheese product, and I am usually happy to watch an episode of I Love Lucy. No national day necessary there. But the dictionary? That stalwart reference has earned our respect; it deserves an annual celebration – as does the man who compiled the first American English dictionary.
Enter Noah Webster – born on October 16, 1758 – in whose honor we mark National Dictionary Day. In 1806 Webster published the first American English dictionary. And with this small tome the logophile was just getting started. He launched a 22-year odyssey to compile his magnum opus in 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language. Along the way Webster studied 26 languages – including Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Sanskrit.
Anyone willing to learn 26 languages so that random strangers might know the etymological origins of a word has my respect. But I find Webster’s skills as a linguist far less interesting than his quest to draw cultural lines in the sand between the between the American and English vernacular.
A citizen of the newly independent United States of America, Webster sought to unearth the words – and spellings – that were unique to his compatriots. His efforts to simplify spelling were nothing short of visionary, and they live on today. It was Webster, for example, who dropped the unnecessary “u” in words like color and behavior, and he was the one to change “centre” to “center.” Other suggestions – such as changing “tongue” to “tung” did not catch on among the new citizens of the USA, but Webster certainly left his stamp on the way we spell.
But did he go far enough? What were his views on the silent k, on “f” versus “ph,” and on the variety of sounds “ough” can make: rough, plough, through, though, cough, thorough? Those four letters have plagued many a student of the English language.
Perhaps I can find the answer to these questions at the Noah Webster House, in West Hartford, CT – where they are celebrating the logophile’s 260th birthday today. I’ll miss the birthday cake this evening, but I’ll be sure to catch It Started with Aardark, an exhibition dictionary day – and Noah Webster – that will be on display through December.
In the meantime, I plan to spend some quality time with my dictionary.