Noah Webster, no fan of language tyrants.

Do you ever find yourself at a loss for words? If so, there’s a book for that; it’s called the dictionary. Continually updated, the dictionary, whether you access it on paper or online, is always there, telling us exactly how we should speak. Or does it?

The whole thing came to a head back in 1961, when the editors of “Webster’s Third Dictionary” had the audacity to include the word “ain’t” in the latest edition of their venerable tome. The battle between those who believed that the lexicon should be prescriptive (telling us how to speak) and those who believed that it should be descriptive (documenting the way we actually speak) soon became pitched.

The whole matter probably brought Merriam-Webster the most publicity it would ever receive — at least until President Trump tweeted something about “covfefe” in the early hours of a May morning in 2017.

In the end, all of the prescriptive/descriptive hubbub could have been avoided had those involved just taken a collective breath and looked back at the words of Noah Webster himself. Way back, after he’d published his first dictionary, Webster stopped being a lexicographer and became a salesman, travelling between Maine and Georgia peddling his book. (While here in the Pine Tree State, he probably stayed with his daughter Harriet, who’d married Edward Cobb, a Portland merchant.)

It was way back then that Webster put the whole matter to rest when he stated in no uncertain terms, “Individuals who dictate to a nation the rules of speaking (have) the same imperiousness as a tyrant (who) gives laws to his vassals.”

Recently Merriam-Webster producers announced that “they” was their 2019 word of the year. Not the “they” that refers to two or more people, mind you, but the “they” that refers to a nonbinary individual who chooses to identify that way. Because that describes the way we actually speak.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”  

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