Our First Words

The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY) - - Your Daily Break -

When you don’t know a word, a teacher or par­ent may tell you to “look it up!” And to­day, that can in­volve go­ing to a smart­phone or com­puter for the def­i­ni­tion, or mean­ing.

Your par­ents and grand­par­ents looked up words in a dic­tio­nary (DIK-shuh-nair-ee) — a book that lists in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der words and their mean­ings, ori­gins, or be­gin­nings, and

pro­nun­ci­a­tions, or how to say them. The first dic­tio­nar­ies were writ­ten in the 1500s and 1600s by Bri­tish writ­ers, cler­gy­men and edi­tors. These lex­i­cog­ra­phers* con­cen­trated on “hard words” and some­times on trans­la­tions of for­eign words.

New coun­try, new words

Born in Con­necti­cut in 1758, Noah Web­ster be­came a teacher. He lived through the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion and was loyal to the United States, and he be­lieved that Amer­i­can sub­jects and styles should be in­cluded in books. He thought this would make Amer­ica more in­de­pen­dent, or free, from Eng­land.

Web­ster also thought Amer­i­can chil­dren should have Amer­i­can text­books. In 1783, he fin­ished “A Gram­mat­i­cal In­sti­tute of the English Lan­guage,” which got the nick­name the “Blue­backed Speller.” It was a text­book that helped kids learn to read, spell and pro­nounce words. The “Speller” was the most pop­u­lar book of its time, sell­ing about 100mil­lion copies.

An Amer­i­can dic­tio­nary

While he was work­ing on the “Speller,” NoahWeb­ster re­al­ized that peo­ple in the United States were us­ing dif­fer­ent words to de­scribe their new gov­ern­ment and laws. He de­cided to write an Amer­i­can dic­tio­nary.

He started his dic­tio­nary in 1801 and fin­ished in 1828, 190 years ago. “An Amer­i­can Dic­tio­nary of the English Lan­guage” gave the mean­ings of more than 70,000 words! Web­ster also in­cluded the words’ pro­nun­ci­a­tions and his­to­ries.

What took so long?

NoahWeb­ster’s dic­tio­nary took 27 years to write. He had to do a lot of re­search. Most of the words we use to­day come from other lan­guages, such as Latin or French. Web­ster learned 26 lan­guages so that he could fig­ure out the ori­gins of our words.

To­day, Mer­riam-Web­ster’s Col­le­giate Dic­tio­nary has more than 225,000 def­i­ni­tions — more than three times as many as Web­ster’s orig­i­nal book.

Mini Fact: Web­ster pub­lished a shorter edi­tion of his orig­i­nal dic­tio­nary in 1806, with about 40,000 words.

Noah Web­ster

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