From colour to color, from plough to plow

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Neosho Daily News

It might classify me as a geek or even a nerd but I was that kid, the one who carried a dictionary to school and actually read it for fun. I received my first dictionary as a Christmas gift in 1972, from my Granny but the story has a twist - snowy and cold weather prompted my grandmother to have her oldest son, my Uncle Roy, do her shopping in her place. It was his hand that chose the paperback Merriam-Webster dictionary for me, an astute choice for a budding writer. At the time, age 11, I scribbled my stories but I didn't think my future aspirations were well known in the family. Or I didn't, not until I received that gift.

I carried it back and forth to me to school every day and in my spare moments, I read it. That was a year in which I was a "new kid" in a different school district so I was often a loner, a kid who'd rather read than pass notes in class. I looked up words to learn the correct meaning and pronunciation but I would actually read random pages, discovering words that were new to me.

I was so fascinated with that dictionary that a few years later, my grandparents on the other side of the family tree bought me an oversize Webster's Dictionary, one suitable for college students. In fact, when I did go to college, I never bought a dictionary, required for some English courses, because my faithful dictionary was far more extensive than the ones available in the campus bookstore.

I still have that dictionary although over the years, the cover detached and has been put back in place with duct tape. When I need a dictionary, that's the one I still use. It, along with a 5th grade English textbook discarded at my cousin's school to become a birthday gift, a Thesaurus that once belonged to Father Roger Leveilee, Strunk and White, and Stephen King's "On Writing" comprise my primary author's tools.

Noah Webster is the father of the modern dictionary. He was born on October 16, 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut. He first published what he called a compendium of the English language in 1808 but his magnum opus, his masterpiece, An American Dictionary Of The English Language in 1828. With more than 60,000 entries, his work overshadowed Samuel Johnson's 1755 British counterpart.

In it, Webster added American words that included skunk, hickory, and chowder. He also simplified spellings of some words, which is why there are spelling differences for some words shared with Britain such as plough to plow and centre to center and colour to color.

Webster was the son of a farmer and weaver with a mother who, as most did in that era, kept house.

He had such a love for learning that his parents sent him to Yale at the age of 16 and he graduated four years later. He became a teacher. That prompted him to eventually put together a dictionary to help schoolchildren better learn their native language - American not British.

Webster also wrote textbooks, fought for copyright laws, and wrote letters to his friend, Benjamin Franklin.

When he died in 1843, his lasting legacy was his dictionary. After his death, his company merged with G & C Merriam to become Merriam-Webster.

So this week, if you're a dictionary nerd like me or if you love language and words, remember Noah Webster, father of the first American dictionary.

-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is the editor for The Neosho Daily News and The Aurora Advertiser. She is also an author and freelance writer.