When I was at school, I had a trusty mini dictionary in my bag and out it came in my lessons (not just in English) for any tricky words I needed help with. Dictionaries were a mainstay of pupils’ desks everywhere. Nowadays, we tend to rely on spell checks (but as we know, they aren’t always reliable!) or checking a spelling quickly online. There is something about a physical dictionary, though, that deserves to be appreciated.
Coming up on 16 October is ‘Dictionary Day’ – a day which celebrates the birth of Noah Webster (he was born in 1758). In 1806, Webster published the first dictionary and he continued to build on this, and add to it, for many years. Just imagine that – dedicating your life’s work to making a book which is famous everywhere in the world today! In fact, in 1828, the dictionary contained definitions of over 65,000 words.
Noah Webster’s initial aim was to differentiate English spellings from American spellings. Back in the early 1800s, English spellings were influential in America, where Webster lived. He wanted to make some changes, and this is what started off his writing of the Webster dictionary. Today, if you think about American spellings of words like ‘color’ (in the UK, we’d write ‘colour’), much of this is linked to Webster’s work.
After his death in 1843, the Merriam brothers purchased the rights to the Webster dictionary. Today, it is known as the Merriam-Webster dictionary. So, a few hundred years after Noah Webster started out on his word mission, his name is still well-known around the world.
Of course, there are other famous dictionaries that you can buy. Maybe you have one in your home. One of the most famous is Collins, but there is also Chambers, Oxford and Cambridge. To suit our reliance on technology, many dictionaries are now easily accessible online, including in app form. Maybe you could do your own research into the history of one of these dictionaries?
What might you do to celebrate Dictionary Day? Perhaps you could play Scrabble (other word games are available). Or, maybe you will make up a new word. You never know – it might appear in the dictionary one day!
If you are stuck for something to put on your Christmas list, you could do a lot worse than a dictionary. As you are looking through to find that perfect word’s correct spelling, do think about the lengths people like Noah Webster went to when they were compiling their work many years ago. It certainly wouldn’t have been easy – but it would have been worth it.