Spell the American way on National Dictionary Day

Dennis Baron debaron at uiuc.edu
Wed Oct 17 05:16:14 UTC 2007


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Spell the American way on National Dictionary Day

October 16 is the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah  
Webster.  It’s also “National Dictionary Day.”  In his own time  
Webster was most famous for the blue-backed spelling books from which  
American children learned their ABC’s, but thanks to the popularity  
of his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, his name  
also became synonymous with dictionary.

This year, to celebrate National Dictionary Day, the editors at the  
Oxford American Dictionary have decided to honor the great American  
lexicographer by revising the spelling of two words to reflect the  
latest American spelling trends.

According to ABC News, after reviewing 2 billion words of  
contemporary American prose, Oxford’s lexicographers have determined  
that since 49% of Americans write vocal chords and 46% choose free  
reign, these innovative spellings will now appear alongside the more  
conventional vocal cords and free rein.

This decision to recognize variant spellings, like a president  
pardoning murderers and White House staffers who lie to grand juries,  
is likely to anger purists who are convinced that the job of  
dictionaries is to propose language laws and see that others obey  
them.  But lexicographers aren’t language cops.  Their job is to  
record English as people use it, not to impose their idea of how it  
should be used on the rest of us.

That very descriptive job description won’t silence the loud  
opposition that vocal chords is likely to produce.  There will be  
letters in the Times from long-retired British colonels who will pop  
their monocles while admonishing Oxford for giving Americans free  
reign over English, thereby violating the dictionary-maker’s  
Hippocratic oath as stated by their own great lexicographer, Samuel  
Johnson, while on the other side of the pond high school teachers  
whose job, as defined by the federal government, is to leave no child  
behind, will campaign to ban such outlandish spellings from  
standardized tests and they’ll tut tut that that poor old Mr. Webster  
must be spinning in his grave.

Neither the colonels nor the teachers will be correct. . . .


to find out why, read the rest of this post on

The Web of Language

www.uiuc.edu/goto/weboflanguage


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

www.uiuc.edu/goto/debaron

read the Web of Language:
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