BackTalk: 20 Years, One Assistant, 70,000 Words | May 1, 2013

Simon Winchester’s fascinating and best selling The Professor and the Madman told the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps less well known but with its own twists and turns is the story behind the many incarnations of Merriam-Webster’s family of dictionaries in print and online (see review).

Wordy Work
There have been eight editions of the Merriam-Webster dictionary under various names since the founder, Noah Webster, released his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language, the result of 20 years of labor with a single assistant. That first edition, explains John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster, cost $20, which at the time was “about the cost of a grandfather clock.” Thus the dictionary was only accessible to the wealthy and to institutions such as schools, courts, and legislatures, and sold a mere 2,500 copies. Webster’s creation was a familiar presentation, echoing the format developed by the man Morse calls “the real pathmaker”: Samuel Johnson, whose groundbreaking work appeared in 1755.

Webster mortgaged his home to produce the 1841 second edition; he also developed an 1843 appendix to it that was published posthumously. Real change came about when, after Webster’s death, George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to revise the earlier works. Their 1847 third edition, says Morse, represented “the birth of modern dictionary publishing.” It condensed the first two editions, and most importantly, lowered the price from $20 to $6, making a purchase much more accessible to the masses. In 1864, a series of revisions (which the company calls “series two”) began that entailed more modernization—a staff of definers, editors, and thorough readers came aboard, producing the first publications from the company to be described as “unabridged.” One of those staff was W.C. Minor, the “madman” of Winchester’s book, who worked on Merriam-Webster while he was at Yale.

Series three began in 1890 and continued up to the Internet age. Since 1890, the nameplate has said “International,” a change that Morse says came about as the United States became a global power, though it was a term that “overpromised all along as the dictionary always used American English.” The later use of “collegiate” in the title was aspirational too, he explains. The greatest change since the price cut came about lately: the unlimited space offered by online publication is, says Morse “a complete gamechanger.”

The new online product, titled “Merriam-Webster Unabridged,” is a bigger reset, says Morse, than simply issuing a fourth edition. In 2002, the dictionary went online, and was a straight digitization of the book. This product, which has a new look, “shoots past” the 100,000 illustrative quotes and example sentences used previously to provide 1,000 more in the first release alone. The vast job of revising the material is done alphabetically and by theme, so that users will initially see the most changes to entries for “A” words. However, changes to those words have a ripple effect, since every word used in a definition must in turn be defined in the way that it was used there.

While some entries were still edited to make them more concise, the editors took advantage of the freedom offered by the new medium. Unlimited space means, for example, that it is now possible to offer more variant forms of capitalization than was possible before. The unabridged will also offer extras such as a word of the day, and lists of the words that users are looking up most frequently. The editors initially worried that the most-used words would be ones that weren’t in their dictionary—new words, trademarks, people—but the lists turn out, says Morse, to be “a profound vindication of what we’ve been doing for 100 years.” Users tend to look up words that have multiple meanings and that are tricky—“idiom” makes a frequent appearance, for example. (It’s a sign of the times that another word that many are looking to define is “marriage.”)

Since the 1961 edition was criticized for not providing enough definitive advice, this work will offer more solid opinions in cases where accepted practice varies, and will include usage paragraphs that may end in a recommendation. There will also be more usage labels, such as ones that indicate whether a word or term is considered informal.

The methods of compiling the work haven’t changed much, though. The editors still use a vast citation file to help in composing meanings and in choosing illustrative quotes and examples, only now that file is online and searchable, and is augmented by material from Google Books, Lexis Nexis, and other online corpora. The editors’ criteria for choosing among the citations remains the same. Since, as Morse says, “English is a sensible language but not always a logical language,” their job is to find usages that reveal meaning well and “display style and grace. It’s a plus if the material is by a well-known author,” says Morse. There have been some global changes, too. In the past, the dictionary used a notoriously odd capitalization scheme—most entries were lower case. This was done, explains Morse, “to show the word in its most unadorned form, and because there are no caps in spoken language.” It’s a plus that will overcome many users’ pet peeve, and it’s not the last: revision is ongoing.

Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.