April 21


and Noah Webster has just published the first American dictionary, now known as the "Merriam-Webster Dictionary" - though no one has a klew who Merriam was, or actually were; two of them, George and Charles, founders of G & C Merriam in Springfield, Massachusetts, Webster's original publishers who, when he died in 1843, bought the rights to carry on producing it, and revising/updating it, for ever, a period defined by said dictionary as a time-frame rather longer than...

But I am here to talk about the content of the dickshunery, just published today, compleat with interaktive "buzz-words", and lots of games to encourage children to use the darned thing (it offers no definition of "darned", being too pure, presumably, for slang; but refers you to "darn" as in socks, darn it.)

Webster's is now owned by either the Encyclopaedia Britannica, if you are British, or the Encyclopedia Britannica, if you are American (the Oxford English Dictionary prefers to keep the Latin "ae", which it defines as "the grapheme aesc", pronounced "ash", where Webster drops the "a", and pronounces the "e" as in "egg", rather than the "e" as in "eat your heart out Paul Revere we got our dictionary back!", which of course is written "ea" and not "ae")...

Where was I? Yes, noting that "for ever" turned out to be not much more than a century, because Webster's is now owned by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, who claim copyright, at least on the most recent edition, Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. I am not sure how you enforce such a copyright. Am I in breach every time I use a word that also appears in the dictionary without obtaining prior permission and acknowledging it in a footnote? Or is that a matter of patent rather than copyright law? Or only when I offer a definition that coincides? Or clashes? These are precisely the sorts of questions that Webster wants us to ask, and which are answered right there on his pages (assuming that you trust his definitions, either now, or, indeed, for ever).

The 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary is available online at

which is precisely the sort of mnemonically abstruse nomenclature that you ascribe to an online URL page-format when you really don't want anyone to access it.

And that edition doesn't have "darned" either. Instead it told me: "Remember, this is a 1913 edition, so it is missing many modern English words and definitions. Cross-references are identified automatically [in italics] and may not correspond to valid headwords identified in the source data"... which is a fantastic way of telling people who've looked up a word wrong, "It's yore speling, dummy", but without the risk of being either pseud or, worse, sued.

Speaking of spelling, American spelling, apparently, isn't American spelling at all; it's the spelling that was used by the East Anglians (Norfolk, Sussex, Essex, but also Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire), and since most of the "Mayflower" colonists were East Anglians, they took their spelling with them (this sentence should be read as "brought their spelling with them", if you are reading this on the left side of the pond), and so American has "nite" rather than "night", and "thru" rather than "through", and "s" generally replaces "c", as in "defense", but not "advice", and reverses "re" to "er" in words like "centre/center" and "theatre/theatre", and drops the second syllable where English doubles them (worshipped/worshiped, traveller/traveler, waggon/wagon), and drops the "u" as well (flavour, rumor, rigor), and has a Devon and Somerset "z" where Saxon prefers an "s", as in "organize" and "recognize".

Webster has added new words to the English language (skunk, squash), but its greatest achievement has been the successful elimination of words which are so much easier if you just have one spelling, even though there were originally two completely different words, and that was why they had two different spellings. So people are now curbed from stepping off the curb (kerb has been eliminated), and people who live in apartment buildings or work in skyscraper office blocks go from floor to floor with lots of tales to tell, because storey has become story.

Noah Webster Jr. (October 16, 1758 – May 28, 1843
I also looked up Webster himself, who turned out not to be "a person who likes to spend time surfing the web", as a 2001 dictionary might venture, but much more dully:

“Webster (page 1638)
     Web “ster (?) n.{AS.webbestre. Wee Web, Weave, and -ster.} A weaver, originally a female weaver [Obs. J. Brathwait.]”

So now you know.

Or, rather, you probably still don't know.

I shall stick to my shorter Oxford.

Amber pages:

753 BCE: Rome founded by Romulus. Must find out where Remus was that day.

Catharine the Great’s birthday, today in 1729. I should dearly love to know what she did to merit the sobriquet "great" - usually it's about imperial conquest and the torture-imprisonment-murder of all opponents and the general vassaldom of everybody else, but who knows, maybe it was art, or science, or literature.

Charlotte the Great's birthday too, today in 1816. That's Charlotte as in Bronte. Or Currer Bell, if you happen to possess a first edition.

And maybe Robert Edwin Peary wasn't the first man to reach the North Pole, despite his claims (see April 6). Perhaps it was Freddie Cook, Peary's friend who was the surgeon on the 1891 expedition, who claimed he had done so a year earlier, on April 21st, 1908- a possibility which I had Peary acknowledge, in my poem "Ninety Degrees North".

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