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Dictionary Day is Coming…

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We’re just five days away from Dictionary Day, the annual celebration of all things lexicographical held every 16th of October. Commemorating the anniversary of Noah Webster’s birth in 1758, it’s largely an opportunity for US school teachers to organize classroom activities encouraging students to build their dictionary skills and to exult in the joy of words. Those of us who are out of school can celebrate too, of course. We’ll have some dictionary-themed fun on OUPblog next week, but I thought I’d kick things off with a look at some of the great names in the Anglo-American tradition of lexicography. Just about everyone knows about Webster, who published the first truly American dictionaries in 1806 and 1828, but let’s also pay homage to some other dictionary doyens who might not be quite as well known to the public.

As it happens, yesterday (October 10th) was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of another American lexicographer, Frederic G. Cassidy, the chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English from the project’s inception at the University of Wisconsin in 1962 until his death in 2000. Joan Houston Hall has since taken over the reins, and she is seeing the dictionary through to its fifth and final volume (scheduled for 2009). DARE is one of the great monuments in American lexicography, unmatched in its coverage of the country’s many regional dialects (with data collected from written sources as well as from thousands of interviews by project fieldworkers around the country). The American Dialect Society recently passed a resolution saluting Cassidy’s vision, encouraging everyone to commemorate the centennial of his birth by raising a glass of rum (since he was Jamaican-born) and exclaiming “On to Z!” Surely many glasses were clinked at this week’s Wisconsin Book Festival, where a toast was held in Cassidy’s honor.

Working our way back in time, let’s commemorate the decennial anniversaries of a trio of Oxford lexicographers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On August 13th, William Craigie (b. 1867, Dundee, Scotland) would have turned 140. Craigie was the third editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and also somehow managed to find the time to edit two other dictionaries: his own Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and the Dictionary of American English. Craigie worked on the DAE from 1925 to 1944 while professor of English literature at the University of Chicago, helping to train a new generation of American lexicographers. The Dictionary of National Biography calls Craigie “the ablest and most productive lexicographer of his time … universally recognized as the supreme master of the art and techniques of dictionary making.”

Henry Watson Fowler (b. 1858, Tonbridge, Kent) will have his 150th birth anniversary next year on March 10th. Some might recognize the name from his authoritative Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, but Fowler oversaw the work on a number of dictionaries for Oxford. With his brother Frank George Fowler, he edited the first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1911), one of the standard British dictionaries of current English, and he also helped complete the first edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (first edition 1933, just launched in its sixth edition). Nonetheless, his fame still rests chiefly on his usage guide, a landmark in linguistic prescription to stand alongside the more descriptive works of modern lexicography.

The last of the Oxford trio is the great James A.H. Murray (b. 1837, Denholm, Scotland), who would have turned 170 on February 7th. In 1879 Murray took on the task of editing the New English Dictionary, eventually known as the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray thought the dictionary project could be finished in ten years. As it turned out, the first fascicle of the dictionary (containing entries from “A” to “Ant”) wasn’t published until 1884, and the last one appeared in 1928, thirteen years after Murray’s death. Murray gathered thousands of quotation slips for the OED over the years, housed in a building in his garden he jokingly called the “Scriptorium.” The long-bearded Murray, standing in his Scriptorium with book in hand, is one of the iconic images of lexicography. (For more on his life, see Caught in the Web of Words by his granddaughter K. M. Elisabeth Murray, as well as Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything.)

Returning to American dictionary makers, February 9th was the 180th anniversary of the birth of William Dwight Whitney (b. 1827, Northampton, Mass.). Professor of Sanskrit at Yale and one of the founders of modern structural linguistics, Whitney was also a significant figure in American lexicography, though often overshadowed by Webster. He got his start in dictionary work contributing to Webster’s 1864 Dictionary of English, and he went on to serve as editor-in-chief of the ten-volume Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1889-1891). It was the largest English dictionary of its day and is still only surpassed by the OED. The Century is one of the great reference works in American history (some would say the greatest), and since it is in the public domain this national treasure can now be appreciated online for free.

Finally, those two titans of English lexicography, Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson, will soon celebrate key anniversaries: it will be Webster’s 250th birthday next year (Oct. 16, 2008), and Johnson’s 300th the year after that (Sep. 18, 2009). Mark your calendars, and spread the lexical love for Dictionary Days to come!


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Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] Read the rest of this great post here [...]

  2. Junice Taylor

    Hi, I love words and your column is right up my alley. Trouble is my memory is not what it was 30 years or so ago. Still have fun throwing out the odd word here and there that make people look at me askance and with an I wonder where she got that and what is it look. Many thanks for your joyous column. Junice Taylor

  3. Erin

    Those who want to help celebrate Johnson’s 300th should check out the events being scheduled here: http://www.johnson2009.org/

  4. [...] Online Resources , Dictionaries , Reference , A-Featured on October 16, 2007 | Share This Happy Dictionary Day! In honor of this wonderful holiday we thought we would introduce you to the Oxford Language [...]

  5. The Word Nanny

    Assuming tonight’s ABC World News report on Dictionary Day was accurate, you should be strung up by your vocal chords (sic) for accepting incorrect forms like “vocal chords” into your dictionary.

  6. [...] Tuesday, in celebration of National Dictionary Day, ABC World News with Charles Gibson ran a piece about how some old expressions are being respelled [...]

  7. Ben Zimmer

    Word Nanny: Ouch! I hope you read my latest column for some clarification of the ABC News piece.

  8. [...] the Century isn’t just big—it’s beautiful, too. To quote expert etymologist Anatoly Liberman, “The Century is one of the great reference works in American history (some would say the [...]

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