Every year, 16th October is observed as ‘World Dictionary Day’, marking the birthday of the great American lexicographer, Noah Webster – the father of the modern dictionary.
Webster’s negative experiences in his primary school motivated him to improve the education experience of future generations. They had poor underpaid staff, no desks, and unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England. Webster believed that Americans should learn from American books; so he wrote a three-volume compendium, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The work consisted of a speller (1783), a grammar (1784), and a reader (1785). His goal was to provide a uniquely American approach to educating children.
Webster was not just a lexicographer. He was also an American textbook pioneer, an English-language spelling reformer, a political writer, an editor, and a prolific author. His blue-backed speller books taught five generations of American children how to spell and read, secularising their education. His two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828 (when he was 70) earned him a place in history as the foremost lexicographer of American English.
Webster took 28 years to complete the American Dictionary. During this period, he learned 26 languages, including Old English, Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. The final draft listed and defined 70,000 words. This had 30,000 words more than Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, which was published almost a century earlier. One out of every six words in Webster’s dictionary was not listed in any dictionary earlier.
He took the opportunity to push through his ideas on English spelling reform such as ‘center’, ‘color’, ‘honor’, ‘ax’, etc.
Samuel Johnson published an English dictionary on 15th April 1755. The Johnson’s
Dictionary, is among the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.
Johnson took nearly nine years to complete the work. Remarkably, he did so singlehandedly, with only clerical assistance to copy the illustrative quotations that he had marked in books. Johnson produced several revised editions during his life.
Johnson’s dictionary was neither the first English dictionary, nor even among the first dozen. Over the previous 150 years, more than twenty dictionaries were published in England, the oldest of these being a Latin-English “Wordbook” by Sir Thomas Elyot, published in 1538.
Robert Cawdrey’s “Table Alphabeticall”, published in 1604, was the first single-language English dictionary ever published. It lists approximately 3000 words, defining each one with a simple and brief description. At this time, the English language was expanding – influenced by trade, travel and new innovations in the fields of arts and sciences.
Right from 1538, the English dictionary had been evolving, leading to detailed compilation of the word, usage in a sentence, the Thesaurus, and Technical dictionaries relating to specific domains.
Some Interesting Facts About Dictionaries
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, together with its 1993 Addenda Section, includes around 470,000 entries. The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, reports that it contains a similar number.
There are 18 popular English dictionaries available. Nowadays, many online dictionaries have also become popular.
(Content from Prime Point Srinivasan- by Sukruti A Vadula)