I played violin with my friends at an Irish music session (a “seisiun” in Gaelic) in Niles on Sunday, and I took a dictionary. As soon as I arrived, my friend’s granddaughter Cassidy asked, “Did you bring any books?” because I always carry a book to musical events. I pulled from my bag my oldest dictionary, a small pocket edition that on the cover is titled “Webster’s Handy Dictionary Illustrated” and on the title page “A Handy Dictionary of the English Language Giving the Spelling, Pronunciation, and Meanings of the Words, Useful Tables, the Metric System, Etc., and Many Engravings. From the latest edition of the large dictionary of Noah Webster, LL.D., by Loomis J. Campbell,” published by Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor & Co. in 1877.
It’s not that I anticipated the need to consult a dictionary at the music session, although occasionally a word question arises in conversation at such gatherings, and if it does I have a Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in the back seat of my car, a practice that began in the 1980s with a paperback edition. I often take books in my bag of music to dances to study during periods of waiting while the caller teaches dances, but in this case I took the dictionary in honor of National Dictionary Day, which commemorates the birthday of Noah Webster, founding father of dictionaries in the United States and of American spelling.
Webster single-handedly produced the first dictionary in the United States, “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” published in two volumes in 1828 when Webster was 70. His “Blue-Backed Speller” introduced a new system for teaching spelling, and more than 60 million copies were published by 1890, standardizing spelling and pronunciation in this country. We spell colour, not color, and labor, not labour, for example, thanks to Webster.
Webster was born in 1758 in West Hartford, Conn. His name is forever tied to American dictionaries, but he led a varied life full of interests and accomplishments. Webster held local and state political office and helped found educational institutions. He was a lawyer and school teacher. He established two newspapers in New York City. He campaigned for a uniform copyright law from 1782 to 1789 and wrote a widely circulated pamphlet advocating the adoption of the Constitution. He lectured on the English language from 1785 to 1786 and published the lectures as “Dissertations on the English language.” He wrote books and pamphlets on a wide range of subjects and wrote and published a revised edition of the Bible.
To compile the great dictionary, Webster labored from 1807 to 1828, using dictionaries of grammars of 20 languages set out on a large round table, and he spent a year in Paris, London Cambridge visiting libraries. Webster issued a revised edition of his dictionary in 1841, and upon his death G.&C. Merriam of Springfield, Mass., bought the rights to the work. That company, as Merriam-Webster, still publishes the only authorized descendants of Noah Webster’s dictionary.
When I showed my little dictionary to Cassidy, she delightedly showed it to her sister, Tiffany, a girl after my own heart, who treasures dictionaries and thesauruses (or thesauri), and Tiffany showed it to her boyfriend, another avid reader of printed books. I never consulted the book that night, but its presence in my music bag was meaningful, one little part of an enjoyable Sunday.
The Irish music session capped a long birthday weekend that started on Friday, my birthday, and I like the fact that my birthday is two days away from Noah Webster’s, author of one of my favorite books. My mother bought lunch Friday afternoon at a bakery in North Canton, where I bought fresh-baked whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies to share with bandmates at that evening’s dance. I played for a contra dance at Jupiter Studios that evening and shared the cookies, dances and musicians sang “Happy Birthday” complete with harmony, and friend Dennis bought me a Great Lakes porter (that’s a beer, for you Bud Lite people) after the dance. The next morning some of us played at the final Farmers’ Market of the season, and I spent the rest of the day with books, animals and a movie. My wife went away for the weekend with Sew Happy Carnation Quilters to an Amish Country getaway, and they left a phone message singing “Happy Birthday.” I’m not one for nightlife and noisy parties, and a weekend of stringed instruments, books, a movie, friends, family and animals with a dash of dictionary was just right.
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