Reference eReviews | May 1, 2013

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Merriam-Webster, Inc.;
for a free institutional preview please go to:


CONTENT Merriam-Webster Unabridged is an American online dictionary containing over 700,000 definitions, 143,000 etymologies, and 100,000 word-in-context quotations from well-known writers. Using the advanced search feature enables users to access citations from the Merriam-Webster citation files (a collection of over a million real-world usage examples that the publication’s editors use to track words and their meanings). This edition, the largest revision done in 50 years, includes 5,000 new words and definitions, supplementary notes providing additional context, and usage paragraphs offering guidance and suggestions for words with disputed usage. The dictionary is supplemented on a continual basis. The new site also includes a blog, quizzes, Top Ten Lists, and word-popularity rankings.


usability This new rendition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged (MWU) online combines a workmanlike interface with a delightfully seductive design that will reel word lovers (like me) in at first glance. The main screen looks similar to the familiar home screen of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): there’s a simple search box (with a link into advanced search), a featured word of the day, a list of recent additions (akin to the OED’s “recently published” words), a link to the resource’s blog, and a predominantly blue, white, and red color scheme. But where the OED’s personality is stately and profound (one feature, the OED Appeals, asks users to “help record the history of our language”), the nature of the MWU is unabashedly frolicsome: it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the result is fun to use.

A title bar includes links to advanced search, the blog, word games, word of the day, and a style guide. Below this at screen left is the simple search box and the day’s blog entry, followed by “Trend Watch” (which notes recent word lookup “spikes”), recent videos by M-W editors (“The Longest Word in the Dictionary” and “Weird Plurals,” for example), quizzes, and top-ten lists. The word of the day is featured prominently, below which appear lists of the most frequently looked up words of the past 24 hours and past seven days, followed recent additions to the dictionary. That sounds like a lot of features, and it is, but the screen isn’t crowded and keeps a research-type character while being entertaining.

I tried some searches, as follows: a lookup of “sigogglin” showed that it wasn’t in the dictionary (I tried looking it up in the OED, too, with no results). Since it’s generally a Southern U.S. term I had hopes—but it wasn’t here. Next I looked for “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and was saddened to see it wasn’t in the MWU (but it was in the OED! That does make a certain amount of sense given that P.L. Travers was an English emigrant from Australia). “Antidisestablishmentarianism” isn’t in the MWU, either, but the Ask the Editor video, “The Longest Word in the Dictionary,” tells the reason why: the MWU requires that words in it have widespread, sustained, and meaningful usage—and “antidisestablishmentarianism” is just a long word that doesn’t meet any of those criteria. BTW, “Antidisestablishmentarianism” is in the OED. I was surprised not to find a number of the American colloquialisms in the MWU, and then to find them in the OED. I didn’t expect MWU to have all the historical material of the OED, but I did think they’d cover American slang more extensively.

Advanced Search allows users to search two or more fields simultaneously. I tried the example the publisher provides: “to find all French-derived words that include “cooking” in the definition, enter ‘French’ in the Etymology field and ‘cooking’ in the Definition field,” and located 41 entries ranging from “autoclave” to “truss.” A suggestion for M-W: rather than making the user expand the number of fields in advanced search from the initial three displayed to all 12, the full number would be better displayed as the default—I was confused when the aforementioned example told me to use the etymology field since it wasn’t displayed at that point.

The style guide offers sections on Punctuation; Capitals and Italics; Plurals, Possessives, and Compounds; Abbreviations; Numbers; Quotations; Notes and Bibliographies; Common Usage Problems; Frequently Confused Words; Grammar Glossary; and a help section. This portion of the resource does a solid, straightforward job of providing “a concise guide on the conventions of contemporary American English…. Firmly based on real-life source material, this style guide attempts to reflect both the consensus and the variety evident in mainstream American published writing.”

MWU’s vivid color illustrations (two examples this reviewer encountered accompanied the front page entries for “vernal” and “capricious”) are visually stimulating, while the intellectually stimulating word games (Dictionary Devil, AddDiction, Bee Cubed, Ci-ta-tion, and Syn City) and quizzes (How Strong is Your Vocab?; Name That Thing; and True or False?) will draw in Generations X, Y, Z; Boomers; and Gray Panthers alike. The playfully informative nature of the file gives this lexicon a distinctly American flavor.


pricing Institutional pricing for Merriam-Webster Unabridged subscriptions is based on the type of organization and the number of weighted users. To calculate the appropriate number of weighted users for your institution, use these factors: colleges and universities: 100% of full-time equivalent students (FTEs); businesses and government agencies: 100% of employees with network access; non-profit organizations: 50% of employees with network access; public libraries: 7% of population served; and K-12 schools: a flat-rate of $350 per school.

The minimum base rate is $350 per year; this includes up to 1,400 weighted users, with additional weighted users being charged $.25 each.


verdict Is the MWU a must-have for all libraries? No. But it does offer a different approach and attitude toward language from that of the OED, and its American character makes it a good supplemental acquisition for libraries that can afford the OED, and a substitute for those that can’t.

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980's, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early 90's (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.