Dictionary Day

The folks at Mental Floss tell me that today, October 16th, Noah Webster’s birthday, is Dictionary Day, described on the Days of the Year site as follows:

A day for lexicographers everywhere, Dictionary Day was founded to celebrate the achievements and contributions of Noah Webster – the father of the modern dictionary. Why not take the opportunity to learn some new words?

Several things to annoy the careful reader here, starting with the narrow American focus and going on to the ideas that we’d all be improved by learning some new words and that the primary job of lexicographers is giving us a great big list of words.

Dictionary history. Dictionaries have been around for a very long time indeed. From Wikipedia:

The oldest known dictionaries were Akkadian Empire cuneiform tablets with bilingual Sumerian–Akkadian wordlists, discovered in Ebla (modern Syria) and dated roughly 2300 BCE.

And English dictionaries began well before Noah Webster; “The first purely English alphabetical dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604.” More from Wikipedia:

It was not until Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that a truly noteworthy, reliable English Dictionary was deemed to have been produced, and the fact that today many people still mistakenly believe Johnson to have written the first English Dictionary is a testimony to this legacy. By this stage, dictionaries had evolved to contain textual references for most words, and were arranged alphabetically, rather than by topic (a previously popular form of arrangement, which meant all animals would be grouped together, etc.). Johnson’s masterwork could be judged as the first to bring all these elements together, creating the first ‘modern’ dictionary [of English].

What Webster provided, beginning with materials in the early 19th century and culminating in his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language, was a comprehensive and specifically American dictionary. That’s worth celebrating, but Johnson gets the palm for first modern dictionary of English.

On the polymathic Johnson:

Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [Gregorian calendar; 7 September in the Julian calendar] – 13 December 1784), often referred to as Dr Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. (Wikipedia link)

So if we wanted a holiday honoring Johnson, that would be September 18th (on the Gregorian calendar, which is what we use now).

And on Webster:

Noah Webster, Jr. (October 16, 1758 – May 28, 1843), was an American lexicographer, textbook pioneer, English-language spelling reformer, political writer, editor, and prolific author. He has been called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education”. His blue-backed speller books taught five generations of American children how to spell and read, secularizing their education. According to [Joseph] Ellis (1979) [After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture] he gave Americans “a secular catechism to the nation-state”.

Webster’s name has become synonymous with “dictionary” in the United States, especially the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary that was first published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language. (Wikipedia link)

Webster is worth celebrating, but on a U.S. holiday called National Dictionary Day.

On lexicography. First, on a language as basically a big bag of words (BBoW), see my 11/7/11 posting on (among other things) the importance of “improving your word power” by learning new words, which concluded:

(I’m not saying that words — even seeing a word merely as a pairing of a spelling with a definition, as so many people are inclined to do — aren’t important, just that vocabulary knowledge is such a small part of linguistic competence that it seems grotesque to focus so heavily on words, words, words.)

But, more important, what lexicographers do goes vastly beyond pairing spellings with definitions. Take a look at the regular “Among the New Words” columns in American Speech (for samples, search on “Among the New Words” “American Speech”), where you can see drafts of dictionary entries for newly attested words (and other fixed expressions), with an enormous amount of information about each new word, its historical source, the subtleties of its meanings, and the way it’s used by writers and speakers (by what sorts of users, in what contexts, for what purposes), with carefully chosen citations to illustrate these points.

This is grindingly difficult work, and I don’t claim to have the resources to do it well, though I occasionally post with some small contribution to the task.

So, yes, lexicographers deserve a day of celebration. Noah Webster’s birthday strikes me as far too parochial an occasion. For English lexicography in general, we should be honoring Johnson, or else James Murray:

Sir James Augustus Henry Murray (7 February 1837 – 26 July 1915) was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist. He was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death. (Wikipedia link)

Murray would give us February 7th to celebrate dictionaries of English.

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