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Love of Dictionaries and the English Language

Monday 18 September 2017 at 12:20 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for September 14, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            It’s necessary for me to begin today with a couple facts I’ve written about before, but their relevance to this column makes them worth repeating. Fact Number One: I was the Spelling Bee Champion of Dime Box Rural School. Fact Number Two: Growing up right after the Depression with little money, my family owned only three books, A Bible, Luther’s Small Catechism, and a Home and Office Dictionary. Of the three, my favorite was the dictionary, and I read it from cover to cover many times, like you would read a novel.

            My wife’s family, on the other hand, had many books, including encyclopedias and dictionaries. When my wife’s grandmother died, the family discovered that they now owned a Samuel Johnson dictionary, which was quite valuable, and her father and his siblings gave it to Tulane University, their Alma Mater. At that time I was more interested in my beautiful, young wife than a dictionary, even one that was a collector’s item.

            As a wordsmith, dictionaries continue to hold a great fascination for me. A good dictionary tells you more than just the correct spelling and the meaning of words; it also tells you their origin and brief history, as well as the pronunciation. So, maybe it’s not too terribly crazy to “read” a dictionary.

            Now, many years after that Samuel Johnson dictionary found a home in the Tulane library, I can’t help but speculate about it.

            First of all, Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield, Stafforshire, in 1709, and resident of London, is usually credited with having written the first complete ENGLISH dictionary (there were word lists and smaller dictionaries before him). There seems to be a disagreement as to who wrote the first AMERICAN English dictionary, which would show American spellings, American pronunciations, and American meanings. Some educated folks say it was Noah Webster; others, however, say, it was Samuel Johnson, Jr. Added to the confusion of which one was first, there is the added confusion of two Samuel Johnsons. Well, Samuel Johnson, Jr., lived in Connecticut, and Samuel Johnson lived in London. In spite of having the same name, the two lexicographers were totally unrelated. Noah Webster, like Samuel Johnson, Jr., also lived in Connecticut and published his first American dictionary in 1806, an expanded version following in 1828. It is believed that Samuel Johnson, Jr., published his dictionary in America, in 1798. It’s possible that Webster’s was more thoroughly “American” than Johnson’s, but I haven’t studied either dictionary.

            An “American” dictionary was needed, because you would have the same lack of uniformity of spelling and pronunciation in American English as in the King’s English. Added to that would be the numerous English words in America that came from the Native American languages, -- such as skunk, squash (the vegetable), hominy, chipmunk, moose, just to name a few.

            The Samuel Johnson in London published his dictionary in 1755, no doubt having an influence on the two American lexicographers. This particular Johnson saw a very acute need for a dictionary of the English language, since there were no standard spellings or pronunciations of words. In the previous century, we saw great Elizabethan/Jacobean writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe use a variety of spellings for the same word. Shakespeare’s name itself was spelled “Shakespere,” “Shakspear,” and “Shakespeare.” With common words, the different spellings were multiplying. So, yes, it’s surprising that it took so long before someone did some work on standardizing the English language in England.

            Noah Webster, long before he compiled an American dictionary, created spelling books for American school children, with five generations of American kids taught to spell by means of Webster’s spellers. To be sure, English spelling and American spelling differed, e.g., “colour” versus “color,” “centre” versus “center,” etc. Although there is really no such thing as “standard English,” some type of standard had to be established. Had there been computers in the 17th and 18th Centuries, there couldn’t have been a spell-check.

            Over the years, meanings of words changed radically, and so it was never an easy task to be a lexicographer. For example, in the Middle Ages, “silly” meant “blessed,” and today it means “foolish.” Semantic changes like that are enough to give any lexicographer a headache. But life itself is change, and so language is change. How many of us can read and understand Old English (time of Beowulf)? How many of us can even read and understand Middle English (time of Chaucer)? As a wordsmith, I love the English language, -- in all of its complexity, it all of its radical changeability, in all of its inconsistencies, in all of its nuances!


Ray Spitzenberger has retired after serving as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, for 28 years, teaching in high school for 9 years and at Wharton County Junior College for 22 years.

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