Webster’s legacy: icing on the (cup)cake

Yale students got a little taste of lexicographical history Thursday afternoon — specifically, “hommony,” “velveteen,” “succotash” and scores of other words courtesy of alumnus Noah Webster – B.A. (1778) — and his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language.

As part of the 250th birthday celebration for one of Yale’s most-read alumni, the Webster’s legacy was written everywhere on more than 700 cupcakes in Commons Thursday. Each of the pastries bore a piece of chocolate iced with words that appeared in Webster’s first dictionary of the English Language. Cupcakes comprised only part of the celebrations, which honored Webster’s role in the modernization of American English. In the end, the festivities were as plentiful and diverse as the bite-sized desserts themselves.

Students faced tough competition for the limited cupcake supply in Woolsey Rotunda. The cupcakes, iced with words, were a part of the “Eating Your Words” event. Birthday celebrations will continue throughout the day today with panels and receptions.
Karan Arakotaram
Students faced tough competition for the limited cupcake supply in Woolsey Rotunda. The cupcakes, iced with words, were a part of the “Eating Your Words” event. Birthday celebrations will continue throughout the day today with panels and receptions.

Sebastian Caliri ’12 picked up a cupcake with the word ‘porcine’ “primarily because of the chocolate frosting,” he said.

“I don’t know what porcine means, actually,” Caliri added.

Matt Ramirez ’12 chose ‘electrician’ because his dad is one. Beinecke archivist Molly Wheeler said she started off with a “hickory,” and then — for good luck, she said — ate a piece of “publicity,” too. She admitted she prefers the Oxford English Dictionary to Webster’s, too.

“I followed Molly’s lead,” Beinecke curator Louise Bernard added. “I like banana [cupcakes] and the word ‘chowder.’

Hundreds stopped by Commons earlier in the day to enjoy the cupcakes — and the words. Assistant University Secretary Lauralee Field organized the cupcake event, appropriately titled “Eating Your Words.” Words included Americanize, butternut, caloric, caucus, constitutionality, lot, slang, skittles and whiskey.

Within the first 21 minutes of the event, cupcake server Jean Michel Mange said he had to replenish the cupcakes on the tiered display at least 20 times. But he, too, enjoyed himself — Mange said he placed “immigrant” and “Americanize” cupcakes next to each other on the display.

Geoffrey Little, communications coordinator for the University Library, also took time to enjoy the festivities.

“It’s so fun and informal and celebratory,” he said. “We’re all eating cupcakes.”

And although the cupcakes may have stolen the show, Webster’s history was not completely forgotten either.

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster, Inc.’s editor at large, spoke about the evolution of the American dictionary over the past 200 years. Webster’s Collegiate dictionary was introduced in 1898, when Merriam-Webster made a concerted effort to condense the English language into a single volume. Sokolowski called the Collegiate edition the “greatest American success story.” It is the “best selling hardcover book in American history,” he added.

Merriam-Webster dictionaries were distributed for free in the Sterling Memorial Library manuscript room. Sokolowski even had one on him during the talk.

“I brought one along in case of emergency,” he quipped.

During the question and answer session, Sokolowski — who writes entries for both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and French-English dictionaries — was asked whether he completes crossword puzzles or plays Scrabble. Sokolowski demurred.

“I work with words, I do not play with words,” Sokolowski said. He also said he likes the word ‘crepuscule.’

The first printing of Webster’s 1828 dictionary sold 2,500 copies. Webster was responsible for removing the u’s from British spellings of words such as ‘colour’ and ‘honour.’ Webster also simplified the British ‘gaol’ to ‘jail.’ Some of his spellings, however, did not become as popular: ‘tung’ became ‘tongue.’ ‘wimmen’ became ‘women.’ But ‘soop’ kept the ‘u’ that Webster had been so fond of removing.

Webster has had a long affiliation with Yale. He earned three degrees while living here on the corner of Grove and Temple Streets, where Silliman College stands today.

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