Well, happy birthday, Noah Webster. On October 16, 1758, Noah was born in Hartford, Connecticut
, the son of a farmer and weaver, and he grew up to edit the first American dictionary, a project that took him 27 years to complete. His book was special because it wasn't just a speller for Americans to use ? it was a record of the English used by Americans, which in colonial times was already distinct from British English.
Last year I spent a few months in Ireland, during which time I was delighted to hear all manner of Dublinisms being used. But apparently I too sounded funny. One day I was taking a walk with a friend when out of the blue he asked me, "Do you ever use the word ornery?" Hm. "Yeah, when it applies," I told him, thinking of the disagreeable shop girls in just about every store I'd been to in Dublin that day. Turns out ornery is an American word, which my friend knew but I didn't until I got home and looked it up in my housemate's (British) dictionary. Most etymologies put ornery's date of birth at 1816. It comes from a variation of the pronunciation of the word ordinary, which then picked up a negative connotation. And indeed, as one history of the word put it, who wants to be just like everybody else?
Not Noah Webster. Instead of becoming a farmer he went to school, then to Yale, and later studied law. But he wasn't all that impressed with American schools, which used books from England. He thought Americans should learn from their own books, so he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language ? a huge success that was outsold only by the Bible and over the course of several years taught millions of American kids how to read and write. A rebel word nerd; gotta love that. At the age of 43 Webster began compiling his dictionary. Some peculiarly American spellings he included remain in use today, such as color instead of colour, catalog, and plow. (Some of them didn't catch on, like wimmen for women, but tell that to Mary Daly.)
Noah had contempt for Samuel Johnson and his dictionary, partly because it included rude words like fart, and he set out to do a better job. To be sure, Webster's had 70,000 words to Johnson's 40,000, and it included a pronunciation guide, which Johnson hadn't attempted. Unfortunately Webster took a weird approach to word histories. He believed that all languages derived from an original one spoken by Adam and Eve, and he tried to show that English words had developed from the Biblical tongue through Hebrew, which is waaay wrong. When the Merriam brothers bought the rights to publish Webster's dictionary they hired a scholar to rewrite the etymologies.
And that's the story of how America came to have its very own dictionary. In honor of Noah's b-day let's all grab our Merriam-Webster's, learn a funny word, and surprise and amaze our families and coworkers by using it this week. Mine's pettifoggery, but you can use it too. The dictionary belongs to the people, people.