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Get ready for Dictionary Day

Oct 13, 2011 | Advertising, Language

Dictionary Day is this Sunday, October 16. Why? Because it’s Noah Webster’s birthday. The folks at Wordnik are having a Dictionary Day photo contest: “now that you’re using Wordnik as your go-to word source, show us how you’re putting your print dictionary to use.” “Perhaps you’re using it as a door stop,” they suggest. Now Wordnik is nice and all, but I still read my print dictionaries. I love browsing through them and stumbling upon new things. I guess I need to go take a picture of myself furiously reading the dictionary. Here it is:

Photo of Bill reading a dictionary

That dictionary I’m reading is a facsimile of Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, though I suppose I should have grabbed a copy of Webster’s in keeping with the celebration of his birthday. I don’t know who published this facsimile or when, since it contains only the exact facsimile, and I’ve lost whatever other information came with it, if any.

I still remember going to the book store to buy the Shorter OED (my first “grownup” dictionary) many years ago. My friend Jim was along, and he was astounded and amused. “You’re spending $100 for a dictionary? A dictionary? What are you going to do–sit home and read your big dictionary?” Yep.

Erin McKean (among other things, founder of Wordnik) wrote in a column about Dictionary Day two years ago that,

Language is power – we understand that words can move us to tears or laughter, inspire us to great deeds or urge us to mob action. Dictionaries are the democratization of that power, and the more words they contain, the more democratic they are. The dictionary is a gigantic armory and toolbox combined, accessible to all. It reflects our preoccupations, collects our cultural knowledge, and gives us adorable pictures of aardvarks, to boot. And it does all this one word at a time.

So there, Jim.

* * *

Here’s a sign I saw the other day, created by someone who didn’t spend enough time reading real dictionaries before trying write a dictionary entry of their own. It’s at an apartment complex, explaining the renovation work they’re doing:

Sign with bad fake dictionary definition

The sign reads:



Let’s skip over the fake pronunciation (and the fact that the whole thing is in ALL CAPS; why do people do that?). They’ve identified renovate as a verb. Good start. And they note that it’s “used with object.” Also good, though in a real dictionary you’d probably say it’s “transitive.” On to the definition. Hmm. Now I’m confused. Are they saying that I can “new roof” my house? Or maybe renovate isn’t actually a verb and “a renovate” is “new siding”?

Tip for aspiring dictionary entry writers: when you’re defining a verb, your definitions should describe actions. Here’s Johnson’s definition from 1755: “To renew; to restore to the first state.” No siding involved.

I know: it’s not supposed to be a useful dictionary entry, and most people who see the thing won’t be terribly familiar with dictionaries or parts of speech, either. But still. Perhaps (inspired by the suggested activities for National Grammar Day and National Punctuation Day) I should get some spray paint and go out Sunday morning to “renovate” the sign in the name of Noah Webster.


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