October 16, the birthday of Noah Webster, is Dictionary Day in America. Show your appreciation for this most useful of reference books by celebrating Dictionary Day with your children --learn some new words, learn how dictionaries came to be, spruce up your dictionary skills, or even create your own dictionary!
Dictionary history. Dictionaries have been around for a very long time indeed. From Wikipedia:
The oldest known dictionaries were Akkadian Empire cuneiform tablets with bilingual Sumerian–Akkadian wordlists, discovered in Ebla (modern Syria) and dated roughly 2300 BCE.
And English dictionaries began well before Noah Webster; “The first purely English alphabetical dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604.” More from Wikipedia:
It was not until Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that a truly noteworthy, reliable English Dictionary was deemed to have been produced, and the fact that today many people still mistakenly believe Johnson to have written the first English Dictionary is a testimony to this legacy. By this stage, dictionaries had evolved to contain textual references for most words, and were arranged alphabetically, rather than by topic (a previously popular form of arrangement, which meant all animals would be grouped together, etc.). Johnson’s masterwork could be judged as the first to bring all these elements together, creating the first ‘modern’ dictionary [of English].
What Webster provided, beginning with materials in the early 19th century and culminating in his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language, was a comprehensive and specifically American dictionary. That’s worth celebrating, but Johnson gets the palm for first modern dictionary of English.
On the polymathic Johnson:
Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [Gregorian calendar; 7 September in the Julian calendar] – 13 December 1784), often referred to as Dr Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. (Wikipedia link)
So if we wanted a holiday honoring Johnson, that would be September 18th (on the Gregorian calendar, which is what we use now).
And on Webster:
Noah Webster, Jr. (October 16, 1758 – May 28, 1843), was an American lexicographer, textbook pioneer, English-language spelling reformer, political writer, editor, and prolific author. He has been called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education”. His blue-backed speller books taught five generations of American children how to spell and read, secularizing their education. According to [Joseph] Ellis (1979) [After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture] he gave Americans “a secular catechism to the nation-state”.
Webster’s name has become synonymous with “dictionary” in the United States, especially the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary that was first published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language. (Wikipedia link)
Webster is worth celebrating, but on a U.S. holiday called National Dictionary Day.