Dictionary Day

Noah Webster’s birthday is October 16th, now known to a fraction of the population as “Dictionary Day.” It’s a good day to think about words.

We have just witnessed the birth of a new word, twerk — a reminder that our vocabulary is ever evolving.

IDennis Baron’s always interesting blog The Web of Language tells of a school in England which has banned certain words from its classrooms. Here they are:


I might go along with “basically,” but the rest are very different from what I would ban from my classroom if I wanted to gussy up their language. “innit” is a British colloquialism. Americans would have to figure out something else.  “aint” (spelled without an apostrophe) is rare, the rest would be irrelevant in my university.

If banning words would achieve the school’s goal (to improve the students’ employability by making them sound more educated), it might be a good idea, but bans only drive slang and idioms further underground. This ban is kind of cute and very ignorant.

Dictionary Day gives us a chance to shine a light onto our inner lexicon. As of today, I haven’t used the word twerking, and I’m not sure I would know it if I saw it, but I’ve probably done it once or twice in my life and not known what to call it.


EXERCISE:  Have students write down (privately) five words they would not use in the classroom, and the substitutes they might use instead; for example, instead of an inappropriate expletive, they might say, “gosh” or “my goodness.” When I set to that task myself, I discovered that the number one word I would avoid is “god.”

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