How “Honour” was lost & “Ain’t” gained ground …in the Dictionary Wars

 Joe Mc Kay’s “Crazy About Words”
…toasting our language since 2003!

I felt a shiver, a frisson of fellowship, when I read this revelation from Emily Dickinson’s biographer, “The dictionary was no mere reference book to her; she read it, like a priest his breviary — over and over, page by page, with utter absorption.”

How could she not have been smitten by a book so full of itself?!

She owned Noah Webster’s first American Dictionary of the English Language, which he had completed in 1828 at the age of 70. Expanded in 1841, it contained 85,000 words. “Honour” was not one of them!

Fifty years after the Revolutionary War, as Americans were still struggling to define their own national identity, Webster booted the English spellings of words like “honour,” “programme,” and “centre,” embraced terms from the Arts & Sciences (gasp!) rather than just literary references, and advocated our use of “a federal language.” Infuriated cultural conservatives criticized him for being too inclusive, said his book “bordered on vulgar.”

Were he alive today, he might say his dictionary is “as American as apple pie.” Indeed, “Webster’s Third” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of The English Language, Unabridged),
published in 1961, was so inclusive and descriptive of common usage that it even allowed the long-disdained “ain’t” … “though disapproved by many, and more common in less educated speech, (it is) used orally in most parts of the US by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase, “ain’t I.” Sounds fair enough, eh?

But there has never been a lull in the Dictionary Wars. The publishers of American Heritage magazine, after failing to buy out Webster’s to halt its sales, geared up and came out with their first dictionary in 1969. It favored the prescriptive tradition, guarding what, to their team of lexicographers, is “proper” English.

What would Emily Dickinson say? A line of her own might provide a clue, “A word is dead when it is said, some say/ I say it just begins to live that day.”

I am lucky enough to witness words begin to live in the minds of hundreds of children every year at this time. “Crazy About Words” is a local sponsor of The Dictionary Project* here on Eastern Long Island. Volunteers personalize and present over 300 copies of A Student’s Dictionary to third graders at eight local schools. I give a short introductory lesson in how to use their dictionary, by first asking the teachers to help the kids adopt a pet letter in advance of our school visit.

After volunteers call them up one-by-one to receive their very own first dictionary, I ask the children to turn to the page where words with their “pet letter” begin, and suggest that by the end of the school year they might be experts on words beginning with that letter. Then I ask them each to find a 5-letter word they don’t know. On one recent visit, a “C” boy, beaming with the light of discovery, identified cache. The boy spelled the word, heard the correct pronunciation (not catchy!), and read the definition. Many of the kids, now bristling with recognition of the idea, had anecdotes about caches they’ve known.

I like to think they will have an abiding affection for the words they discover on this day.

The inspirational cover of their new dictionary bears a photo of Planet Earth from space and a quote from the Viennese Philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of your language are the limits of your world.” We close our lesson with a discussion of its meaning.
The Dictionary Project’s slogan, “A Dictionary is a Necessity” rings true for me constantly. I look at one of my several grownup’s dictionaries and I ask myself, “Where else but in a Dictionary could I find the words, “brumal,” “kyphosis,” and “okapi” between two covers?” … three words I discovered in my reading this past month and was delighted to squirrel away in my cache of ken.

And only with an adult’s understanding of the multiple definitions of so many words could I know that “a Caesarean Section” might also be “a neighborhood in Rome” (from my cache of puns!)

November 2011

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*For more information about The Dictionary Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to getting every third grader his/her own dictionary, and to learn how you might help, go to: