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Written Words Are Powerful Indeed

One of the first dictionaries I bought was a Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary in 1956. Little did I know at the time that 17 years into my future I would begin to make my living in part by writing words. Working at a weekly newspaper was the furthest thing from my mind at that time. I began my employment with The Tomahawk in 1973. It was then that words and the stories they tell became of greater importance to me than ever before. I retired from The Tomahawk in 2003 after more than 30 years there. I have been writing this column since August of 2003 and this is my 394th since then. So juggling words has been an important part of my life and livelihood.
The dictionary I bought defined “dictionary” as “A work of reference in which the words of a language or of any system or province of knowledge are entered alphabetically and defined; a lexicon.” The definition of “lexicon” was the same as it was for “dictionary.” A person who compiles and publishes a dictionary is called a “lexicographer.”
It is hard for me to imagine how difficult it must have been to research and publish an original dictionary. “Tedious” must be the word to describe the slow, painstaking work necessary for compiling and publishing a dictionary. It was after many years and much work and evolving effort that the “Oxford English Dictionary” was published. A CD-ROM edition of that dictionary has recently been published.
In the late ‘60s I bought a Webster’s Third New International Unabridged Dictionary. It is in three volumes and includes a seven-language dictionary as well. I realize that those two dictionaries as well as others I have are out of date by now since the language changes over time. But for all practical purposes they’re good enough for me. Both are Merriam-Webster publications.
Noah Webster was an early lexicographer who as a teacher found it difficult to teach from books written largely from an English perspective with English spellings. He was convinced of the need for better textbooks in English. In 1783 – 1785 he published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in three parts, a spelling book, a grammar and a reader. His Blue-Backed Speller became extremely popular in the schools of that day. He published his first Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 and in 1828 published the first edition of his An American Dictionary of the English Language. Noah Webster was a many-talented man. He was a lawyer who was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. He was a spelling reformer, an orchardist, a gardener and an experimental scientist. He wrote many articles, books, and pamphlets. But, in my mind at least he is remembered most for his contribution to the American us-age of the English language through his dictionaries and other writings. He also standardized the spelling of many words such as from the English spellings of musick to music, centre to center and plough to plow. Many people seemed to have the attitude that President Andrew Jackson had. He is credited with saying, “It’s a poor mind that can’t think of more than one way to spell a word.”
My maternal grandfather’s name was Noah Webster Harper. We don’t have to guess how my great-grandparents came up with that name since many children in that day were named for famous people.
I have nothing but praise for the men and women who have paved the way through much labor and genius toward making our language as useful and versatile as it is. Words are indeed important. As the saying goes: “The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword.”