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. While Johnson’s goal was to “ascertain” the English language – to make its vocabulary certain, or fixed – he recognized the inherent changeability of English and never shied away from having a bit of fun with the language. In his dictionary Johnson defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” a jab at his friend and chronicler James Boswell, who was a Scot, while with a straight face he calmly informed his readers that a network was “any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”
And instead of saying that the job of the dictionary-maker, like that of the physician, was to do no harm, Johnson defined a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”
Dr. Johnson’s definition of lexicographer, from his Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
Noah Webster was more serious than Dr. Johnson in his approach to language, but he championed some radical spellings that proved so unpopular he eventually had to retract them. Webster wanted his fellow Americans to spell deaf as deef, to reflect the way that some New Englanders pronounced the word, and his lexicon proudly boasted an entry for bridegoom, not bridegroom, because the second element of the word came not from someone who sees to the horses, but from the Old English guma, meaning ‘man.’
Webster’s comment on the proper spelling of bridegoom, from his 1828 dictionary
Webster was a language reformer, and in the heady days after the American revolution he argued that the new nation should have its own language – Webster called it Federal English – to underscore America’s divorce from its former colonial masters.
And it seemed to Webster that one component of American English should be a new and thoroughly American spelling system, so in his dictionaries he took the u out of words like colour and honour and gave us such New World spellings as ax, gray, plow, jail, and center to replace the British axe, grey, plough, gaol, and centre.
These are only a few of the many Americanisms that popped up in the New World. The word Americanism itself was coined in 18th century America by John Witherspoon, the Scottish clergyman and first president of Princeton, who used it to refer to the many corruptions to the English language that were being propagated here like weeds.
But while Webster wasn’t married to deef and bridegoom, most of his Americanisms took root, and for well over a century American spellings have been accepted without question not just from sea to shining sea, but also, most importantly, by the ultimate arbiter of English spelling, Microsoft Word’s spell-checker. And while it may be a while before Bill Gates adds vocal chords and free reign to the utility that we can’t manage to live without, Noah Webster, who originated the idea of honoring American spellings in the dictionary, would no doubt be pleased that at long last the folks at the veddy British Oxford University Press have decided to celebrate Dictionary Day by doing the same.