Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lĭt / uh / ruh / sē Äw / fĭs

There's Never a Last Word on Spelling
As Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster can attest, the test of time can be rough on dictionaries.

LA Times: May 27, 2009 by David Wolman

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson, and were the master wordsmith alive today, I suspect he would be both a fan and a critic of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, taking place today and Thursday. Johnson penned the first annotated dictionary of the English language. At 3 million words in length, with 43,000 entries, it is one of history's greatest lexicographical achievements. As it happens, Johnson also believed that no word should ever end with "c." Had he successfully persuaded the public of this sentiment, today we would be writing not just "publick" but also "gothick," "pedagogick," "musick" -- you get the idea.

Johnson would appreciate the celebration of words inherent in bee mania, and likewise this week's etymological feast. But he (by which I mean I, using Johnson for cover) might also ask: As dramatic as the big bee may be, with its multimedia medley of spinoff movies, books and musicals, does it suggest a capital-C Correct English that paints a false impression of fixed orthography and a strict constructionist view of language? Is English at the bee more rigid than the real thing?

Two generations after Johnson's dictionary took the (literate) English-speaking world by storm, a fiery patriot and obsessive word nerd from Connecticut published his own magnum opus, "An American Dictionary of the English Language." Noah Webster nixed all those extra "k's" -- few people other than Johnson had paid them much attention anyway -- while leaving his own orthographic mark on the lexicon.

In the United States, "gaol" became "jail, "masque" became "mask," "centre" became "center" and "humour" became "humor" -- all because of Webster. He was particularly adamant about purging the "u" in words like "humour" and "colour," a spelling convention that he called a "palpable absurdity." READ MORE !

David Wolman is the author of "Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling."

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