On this day in 1758, the great lexicographer Noah Webster was born. He is best known for the dictionary he started that eventually became the excellent modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary. But he really should be known as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Most people today don’t understand just how screwed up spelling was a couple of hundred years ago. In fact, if you go back to Shakespeare’s time, it is almost impossible read. Everyone had their own spellings that were based upon how the words sounded to them. And then the same writer didn’t spell things the same. Christopher Marlowe wrote his last name with at least a dozen different spellings. So Webster and others were very concerned about standardizing spelling. And in this context, he created a hugely popular Speller that was used to teach American children for five decades. But as Wikipedia notes, it was “entirely secular by design.” And it really helped to create an American identity that was secular. So if the fundamentalists want to blame someone for our relatively secular society, they should stop ranting about Madison and Paine and start ranting about Webster. As a matter of fact, they could become “spelling deniers.” All those secular spelling rules! God doesn’t want us to speak English anyway. Greek is the language of God! Or rather: Ελληνικός!
The great playwright Eugene O’Neill was born in 1888. When I was younger, I loved him. He was so serious. Now, it is kind of hard to take, but I still admire the work. The thing about him is that he perfected realism in American theater. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think we would have had Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or even Edward Albee. He did occasionally write comedies, most successfully Ah, Wilderness! which is still performed. You can look it up; it’s hard to find a good scene. Woody Allen he wasn’t.
Other birthdays: Baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679); photographer Paul Strand (1890); futurist painter Primo Conti (1900); singer Nico (1938); actor Angela Lansbury (88); actor Barry Corbin (73); retiring actor Suzanne Somers (65); film director David Zucker (66); actor Tim Robbins (55); and musician John Mayer (36).
The day, however, belongs to the great writer Oscar Wilde who was born on this day in 1854. Look, I could tell you that I love his books and plays. And I do! The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest are both great. And I could tell you that I love his epigrams. And I do! “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go,” is brilliant. But mostly, I love him because he was an oppressed minority that the society still wanted to bleed dry. Now, of course, we are so much more evolved! Now we only oppress people that ought to be oppressed! Oscar Wilde is a great reminder to all of us to think about who we thoughtlessly oppress each day. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Happy birthday Oscar Wilde!