I love the dictionary, really I do. Remember that scene from “Say Anything” when Lloyd Dobler discovers that Diane Court underlines all the words she has to look up in her dictionary? And this is some kind of proof of her nerdishness? Well, I blushed a little at that scene because, um, I did that, too.
But despite showing lifelong love and appreciation for the dictionary, I have a tiny confession to make: I knew it was Dictionary Day on October 16 (Noah Webster’s birthday, natch) and I meant to mention it, I swear, but it kind of slipped my mind. I mean, I used my dictionary on Dictionary Day, but I’m guessing that doesn’t count.
But apparently, according to Erin McKean, I’m in good company:
Dictionary Day—also known as Noah Webster’s Birthday—was Oct. 16, and throughout the English-speaking world, small children placed their dictionary stands by the hearthstone, hoping that Noah himself would magically come down the chimney and leave them a shiny new dictionary (left open to the word “dictionary,” of course). In some places, Dictionary Day is celebrated with bonfires of the past years’ dictionaries, the baking of the traditional aardvark-shaped cookies, and the singing of etymology carols.No? That didn’t happen in your household? I’m a lexicographer, and it didn’t happen in mine, either.
So we should expand our thinking about dictionaries. 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.