Today is National Dictionary Day. Why? Because Noah Webster was born on this date in 1758.
Trivia fact No. 1: That makes him 200 years older than me.
Title page of “A Dictionary of the English Language,” written by Noah Webster. By Noah Webster; engraved by H. B. Hall and Sons, 62 Fulton Street, New York, New York [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The website nationaldaycalendar.com tells me that National Dictionary Day “is set aside as a day to emphasize the importance of learning and using dictionary skills and increasing one’s vocabulary.” For copy editors, that’s a noble cause.
But since I’ve met many lexicographers in my time in the American Copy Editors Society and know they are not dull (even if Samuel Johnson might have once written, in a fit of wit, that “to make dictionaries is dull work”), I might suggest you celebrate by taking a lexicographer out for a drink.
Or a beverage. Or java. Or hooch. Or a libation or potable. A shot or a snort. Even a brimmer. (Look it up.)
Even better, put a dictionary on the nightstand tonight for some late-night reading. Whatever dictionary it is, it will be a real page turner.
Trivia fact No. 2: Askville by Amazon had a page with the title “Have you or anyone you know ever read the dictionary?” (Edit this as you will; I think they meant read it for fun.)
Back to Noah Webster. Mr. Webster was not the first person to work on a dictionary, but he was the one to decide the English dictionary needed to be Americanized. We can thank him for the letter-saving spelling of color instead of colour and music instead of musick.
Of course, if you primarily edit across the pond, this may not be a fact to celebrate. (Perhaps you celebrated all things lexicographical last month on Dr. Johnson’s birthday, which was Sept. 18, 1709.) But we at the American Copy Editors Society welcome everyone in a celebration of words. In fact, we hope you celebrate words every day.
So before we get back to Noah Webster, enjoy these two short videos.
(Ah. Makes me want to reread “The Professor and the Madman.”)
I’m not sure after reading the Noah Webster House fact sheet on Webster if I would have wanted to take him out for a drink. He “was frequently in debt” and “frequently pointed out the flaws of others.” (Some of that sounds a little familiar.) But I do appreciate the work of lexicographers to monitor, record and analyze the language.
Trivia fact No. 3: The American Dialect Society has been selecting a Word of the Year (or WOTY) since 1991. Copy editors might be partial to the 2005 winner, “truthiness.”)
ACES member John McIntyre, in his blog “You Don’t Say,” offers a good explanation of the purposes of different dictionaries.
It’s serious stuff, but it’s not a static task. Words change and, as copy editors, we should practice both care and flexibility in using them.