Happy Birthday, Noah

Word Memorial by Felipe Gabaldón

I’VE often wondered how some of the simple American spellings of English words – color, center, humor, etc – came into being, and now I know.

It’s all down to Noah Webster, apparently. Yes, that Webster, of Webster’s Dictionary fame (now the Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Old Noah – born on October 16, 1758 – worried about how difficult and often downright illogical the English language was and he was determined to make life easier for students while developing some distinctive cultural independence for his country.

What a sensible man!

He was nothing if not democratic, so before he made his sweeping spelling changes, he solicited public opinion. He won some – as we know – but he lost quite a few, too. If he’d had his way entirely, Americans would now have had such strange spellings as soop instead of soup, ake instead of ache and tung instead of tongue, although I guess they wouldn’t have been so strange by now, would they?

In 1806, according to the Merriam-Webster website, he published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, “based on the author’s combined vision of logic and aesthetics”. And then he set to work on his ground-breaking An American Dictionary of the English Language, “for which he learned 26 languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit, in order to research the origins of his own country’s tongue.
“He changed the –ce in words like defence, offence, and pretence to –se; abandoned the second, silent “l” in verbs such as travel and cancel when forming the past tense; dropped the “u” from words such as humour and colour …” says the website.

In honour (I suppose I should really write ‘honor’) of the anniversary of his birth, today is Dictionary Day in the US, so I’ve been rootling around on the Net to find out how far things have come, linguistically speaking, since Noah’s day.

I was amazed by what I found. In addition to Internet versions of the major English dictionaries, Collins, Oxford, etc, there’s a slew of the strange and unusual:

Unsuck It, for example, is one I’d like to force those who try to baffle us with balderdash to study. “What terrible business jargon do you need unsucked,” it asks, and then proceeds to do so.

Then there’s Word Spy, which describes its job as “lexpionage” and gives the lowdown on new words and phrases; the slang-lovers’ Urban Dictionary; and Twittonary – for Twitter fanatics like me, who love this particular form of social media. 

If you want to find out more about Cockney rhyming slang, feast your mince pies on this one, china! 

The Phrontistery (thinking place) is “a free online dictionary of weird and unusual words to help enhance your vocabulary” – so now I know that “haslock” refers to the wool on a sheep’s throat and neck. What a relief!

The Grandiloquent Dictionary is the result of an ongoing project to collect and distribute “the most obscure and rare words in the English language”. Right now it contains around 2,700 words, though it’s constantly growing. Thanks to this one, I can now throw “recumbentibus” into a conversation (or not!). In case you’re wondering, it means “a knockout punch, either verbal or physical”.

If you’re in any way faint-hearted, I’d advise you to stay away from the Rap Dictionary, though. I didn’t and, let’s just put it this way – I’m still blushing! — Stevie Godson

(A version of this column was first published in the Daily Dispatch)

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This entry was posted by stevieg on Saturday, October 16th, 2010 at 9:54 am and is filed under A Passion for Words, General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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