10 Facts About Webster’s Dictionary for Dictionary Day

October 16 is World Dictionary Day, marking the birthday of the great American lexicographer Noah Webster. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1758, it was Webster’s two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language that truly earned him his place in linguistic history, and a reputation as the foremost lexicographer of American English. To mark the occasion, here are 10 facts about the dictionary without which Dictionary Day would not exist.

1. IT WASN’T WEBSTER’S FIRST BOOK ABOUT LANGUAGE ...

Following his studies at Yale in the late 1700s, Webster had initially hoped to become a lawyer, but a lack of funds held him back from pursuing his chosen career and he instead ended up teaching. It was then that he became horrified of the poor quality of school textbooks on offer, and took it upon himself to produce his own. The result, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language—nicknamed the “Blue-Backed Speller,” because of its characteristic cover—was published in 1783 and remained the standard language textbook in American schools for the next century.

2. ... OR EVEN HIS FIRST DICTIONARY.

Webster had published a less exhaustive dictionary, entitled A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806. Although considered little more than preparation for the much larger project that lay ahead, Webster’s 1806 effort still defined an impressive 37,000 words, and is credited with being the first major dictionary in history to list I and J, and U and V, as separate letters. He began work on his American Dictionary the following year.

3. IT TOOK HIM 22 YEARS TO COMPLETE (FOR GOOD REASON).

Webster reportedly finished compiling his dictionary in 1825, and continued to edit and improve it for a further three years; he was 70 years old when his American Dictionary of the English Language was finally published in 1828. There was good reason for the delay, however: Webster had learned 26 languages—including the likes of Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Old English—in the process.

4. IT WAS THE BIGGEST DICTIONARY EVER WRITTEN.

Webster’s 37,000-word Compendious Dictionary (1806) had listed around 5000 entries fewer than what was at the time the longest English dictionary available: Samuel Johnson’s 42,000-word Dictionary of the English Language (1755). But with the publication of the American Dictionary, Johnson’s record was obliterated: running to two volumes, Webster’s 1828 dictionary defined a staggering 70,000 words, around half of which had never been included in an English dictionary before.

5. NOT ALL OF HIS SPELLING REFORMS HIT THE MARK.

In compiling his dictionaries, Webster famously took the opportunity to make his case for spelling reform. As he wrote in the introduction to his American Dictionary, “It has been my aim in this work … to ascertain the true principles of the language, in its orthography and structure; to purify it from some palpable errors, and reduce the number of its anomalies.”

A great many of Webster’s suggestions—like taking the U out of words like colour and honour, and clipping words like dialogue and catalogue—took hold, and still continue to divide British and American English to this day. Others, however, were less successful. Among his less popular suggestions, Webster advocated removing the B from thumb, the E from give, and the S from island, and he proposed that daughter should be spelled “dawter,” porpoise should be spelled “porpess,” and tongue should be spelled “tung.”

6. SOME OF THE WORDS WERE MAKING THEIR DEBUTS IN PRINT.

Besides recommending updating English spelling, Webster made a point of including a number of quintessentially American words in his dictionaries, many of which had never been published in dictionaries before. Among them were the likes of skunk, hickory, applesauce, opossum, chowder and succotash.

7. WORDS BEGINNING WITH X WERE SUDDENLY A THING.

Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary had contained no words at all beginning with X. (“X is a letter,” he wrote at the bottom of page 2308, “which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”) Webster’s 1806 Compendious Dictionary increased that figure by one with xebec, the name of a type of Mediterranean sailing vessel. But in his American Dictionary, Webster included a total of 13 entries under X, namely xanthid and xanthide (a chemical compound), xanthogene (the base of a new acid), xebec, xerocollyrium (an eye-salve), xeromyrum (a dry ointment), xerophagy (the eating of dry food), xerophthalmy (the medical name for dry eyes), xiphias (a swordfish), xiphoid (a piece of cartilage at the bottom of the breast bone), xylgography (wood engraving), and xyster (a bone-scraper), as well as the letter X itself (“the twenty-fourth letter of the English alphabet … [having] the sound of ks”).

8. WEBSTER PREDICTED THE UNITED STATES’ POPULATION BOOM.

In 1828, the population of the United States was roughly 13 million; by 1928, that figure had increased nine-fold to more than 120 million, and today the US is home to around 320,000,000 people. Despite writing at a turbulent time in the country’s history, Webster somehow predicted the future expansion of America’s population almost perfectly. In the introduction to his American Dictionary, he wrote:

It has been my aim in this work, now offered to my fellow citizens, to ascertain the true principles of the language … and in this manner, to furnish a standard of our vernacular tongue, which we shall not be ashamed to bequeath to three hundred millions of people, who are destined to occupy, and I hope, to adorn the vast territory within our jurisdiction.

It was an oddly accurate prediction, and one that he reiterated under the word tongue (or rather, /tung), which he defined as “the whole sum of words used by a particular nation. The English tongue, within two hundred years, will probably be spoken by two or three hundred millions of people in North America.”

9. ITS PUBLICATION INSPIRED A CHANGE IN THE COPYRIGHT LAWS.

The publication of Webster’s dictionary—as well as his own newfound celebrity—led to a major change in United States law that provided indelible security for all writers and authors. In 1831, Webster was invited to the White House to dine with President Andrew Jackson, and subsequently to give a lecture to the House of Representatives. He took the opportunity to lobby the House to change United States copyright law, which at the time protected writers’ work only for a total of 14 years. The result was the Copyright Act of 1831, which extended writers’ protection to a total of 28 years with the option to apply for a further 14 years’ copyright after that.

10. IT WAS A SUCCESS … BUT NOT ENOUGH OF A SUCCESS.

The American Dictionary sold a quietly impressive 2500 copies—priced between $15 and $20 (roughly $350 and $480 today). But high printing and binding costs meant that even these sales weren’t enough to make the dictionary all that profitable, and consequently, at the age of 82, Webster was forced to mortgage his home in New Haven to finance an extended 2nd edition (including a further 5,000 new words) in 1841. Sadly, it failed to capitalize on the previous edition’s modest success.

Webster died two years later on May 28, 1843, after which booksellers George and Charles Merriam bought all unsold copies of Webster’s 2nd edition—crucially, along with the rights to publish revised editions in future. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary was born.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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