I’m gettin’ my plans together for a major par-TAY on October 16th! I plan to enter several Random Houses, break out my Funk and Wagnall it around! We’re gonna have a Merriam old time!
You guessed it – it’s Dictionary Day once again!
Okay, so maybe you’ve never heard of Dictionary Day. Neither had I until a couple hours ago when I promised No. 3 son twenty bucks for a slam-bang column idea. The best he could do was “Dictionary Day,” celebrated every October 16th, the day the famous American dictionary guy Noah Webster was born.
Yeah, Noah Webster, the one pictured on the (fake) $20 bill I gave No. 3 for this slam-bang column idea.
This year’s Dictionary Day is extra special, because 2012 is also the 206th anniversary of the first dictionary created in America, by the Web-ster himself, of course. That 1806 book succeeded in making bold new rules for lexicography (the study of lexicons), for etymology (the study of etyms) and, most of all, for spelling.
See, Webster was on a mission to rid our English of English. That is, to make uniquely American spellings of words those hoity-toity Brits had brung over. For example, he dropped one of the “l’s” in “traveller” (“What the ‘l’”? said the Brits). He made words like “centre” read “center” (What nreve!” wailed the Brits). He even booted the “u” out of words like “colour” and “honour” (“The horrour!” cried the Brits).
Of course, not all of Webster’s new-fangled language ideas stuck. Some spellings that never caught on included “iz,” “yeer,” “tung,” and “wimmen.” (He really published these.)
If you could hold that first small dictionary (6-1/2” by 4”) next to today’s immense Merriam-Webster, I’m sure you think, as I did, “So who the heck was Merriam?”
There are multiple answers to that question, not counting “Who cares?” which No. 4 son said when I asked him. Actually, the multiple answers are “George and Charles,” the Merriam brothers who published the first revised edition of Webster’s dictionary in 1847, and made gajillions of dollars off it and its successors.
(I was hoping like heck that Webster’s Merriam was the late Governor of Minnesota, proper name William, nickname – honest, now – “Spooky.”)
When I look through newly-published dictionaries, I always look first for the word that I and my high school buddies Don Hale and Dave Clark tried to invent: “spunt.” For two years, we randomly planted “spunt” on bulletin boards, chalkboards, mimeographed tests, and other public places throughout the school. We intentionally gave it no meaning or definition – kind of like my weekly columns. We wanted to see what meaning it might evolve on its own. Since it never caught on, I think it’s safe to say that “spunt” means “nothing.”
Still, there are lots of words that, despite the best efforts of politicians, do mean something. And on the pages of a dictionary, they’re sometimes joined in eye-catching ways.
For example, here are actual word pairs found in my 37-year old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. These are from the top corners of the dictionary pages, where the first and last words found on that page are placed together:
Let’s start with these, featuring words from entirely different points on the mood spectrum: “Purr-Pustulant; “Pit Saw-Placid”; “Lemony-Leprosy”; “Grimy-Groomer.”
Whereas these couplets occupy the same exact point on the mood spectrum: “Scour-Scratchy”; “Slug-Smack”; “Waste-Water Closet.”
This one made me think of a stupid mouse that roamed around a house I once lived in and persistently evaded capture: “Robustious-Rodent.”
Here’s how my kids label pictures of me with them: “Offspring-Old.”
If you’re overpowered by stinky cheese, you probably have “Limburger-Limpness.”
Illustrated in the dictionary by a picture of my beloved Chicago Cubs: “Loser-Loveable.”
A padded bra?: “Figure-Filler.”
Illustrated by a picture of me: “Ideal-Idiot.”
These mean spunt, but they just sound funny: “Nonprofit-Nootkas”; “Fruit-Fug”; “Busty-Buttinsky”; “Booger-Boot.”
The sum total of the estate I’ll leave my kids: “Inheritable-Inkwell.”
A good deed that you wind up regretting: “Fathead-Favor.”
Something my kids dread I’ll do in my old age: “Diaper-Dibbling.”
An impeccable prosecution eyewitness: “Defense-Deflator.”
A really good complainer: “Crackerjack-Crank.”
A rubber-stamp legislature: “Conformational-Congress.”
When you spill the wine: “Bungle-Burgundy.”
A really crowded, really sweaty, really sticky disco: “Agglutinative--A-Go-Go.”
What this column probably did to you, dear reader (sorry!): “Insult-Intelligent.”