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The Word

Cel•e•brate

The case for Dictionary Day

By Erin McKean
Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2009

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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. In fact, if past years’ Dictionary Days are anything to go by, celebrations will consist entirely of anemic press releases from dictionary publishers trying to make Dictionary Day into a kind of Sweetest Day holiday, pushing the purchase of new dictionaries instead of single roses and greeting cards.

So why no love for Dictionary Day? I mean, sure, it’s never going to be Christmas, or even Arbor Day, but why have you never even heard of it? It’s not like Dictionary Day is too obviously geeky to inspire celebration; in the past month we’ve seen outpourings of support for both National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24) and Talk Like A Pirate Day (Sept. 19). Even National Grammar Day (March 4) gets its share of the spotlight.

There’s a reason for this deplorable lack of attention, I think, but it has more to do with us than with the dictionary.

For one thing, holidays are about interaction, and it’s hard to imagine anything less social than Dictionary Day. Talking like a pirate implies someone else listening (whether you have to listen like a pirate as well is unclear), and Grammar and Punctuation days seem to be focused on “helpfully” correcting others’ errors - one of the suggested activities for National Punctuation Day is visiting local stores and pointing out any mistakes in their signs! (“If the owners are not there, leave notes,” the website suggests.) But celebrating Dictionary Day seems only to involve some quiet quality time alone with a reference book.

It’s also true that Grammar Day and Punctuation Day serve as rallying points. Quite a few people (judging by my e-mail inbox) seem to be concerned about what they see as the decline of good grammar and proper punctuation - and dictionaries don’t inspire the same concern. They seem to be doing OK, not great, certainly, but they’re not yet at the stage where they need a special day just to keep them alive.

But the real problem with Dictionary Day is bigger than that. The problem is how narrowly we think about the thing we’re supposed to be celebrating. If you think of Dictionary Day as being about a dusty book that’s hardly ever opened, then sure, it’s going to rank slightly further down the celebratory scale than National Corn Dog Day (which was March 21 this year, if you’re curious). But if you think about dictionaries as being about the language, then isn’t the English language well worth a holiday?

Maybe we should take our cue from another recent holiday - South Korea’s Hangul Day, celebrated on Oct. 9. Hangul Day commemorates the invention of the Korean alphabet by King Sejong the Great in 1446. The new alphabet was considered to be so dangerous - by making literacy possible for more than just a tiny elite - that it was nearly suppressed after the king’s death. Today, it’s a cultural treasure and considered by linguists to be one of the world’s perfect alphabets.

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.

So if we did want to turn Dictionary Day into a real holiday - or at least one that could compete with the pirates - how could we go about it? The first thing to do would be to take the focus from the container to what’s inside. (We don’t celebrate Cardboard Box Day, after all.) Change Dictionary Day to Word Day - or better yet, Favorite Word Day - and watch the parties break out! (That might be a slight exaggeration, but at the very least we’d see a hashtag on Twitter.) Encourage people to share their favorite words, and at least a few folks will head straight to - you know it - the dictionary.

If we start now, we can build up quite a bit of excitement for Oct. 16, 2010. Save the date!

E-mail Erin McKean at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to www.boston.com/ideas. Jan Freeman will be writing alternate weeks.