Webster’s after Webster: The Director of Defining

SEQUEL, n. 1. That which follows; a succeeding part; as the sequel of a man’s adventures or history. 2. Consequence; event. Let the sun or moon cease, fail or swerve, and the sequel would be ruin. Hooker.

At first, there’s this moment of anxiety when you realize that you’re actually writing the dictionary. It’s very intimidating,” says Stephen J. Perrault, the director of defining at Merriam-Webster, Inc. Despite three decades of experience and the authority conveyed by his own imposing title, the wiry and soft-spoken wordsmith admits, “You never quite get over it.”

This modern-day Noah Webster supervises forty full-time lexicographers at the Springfield, Massachusetts-based company, which bought the rights to the Connecticut Yankee’s words shortly after his death in 1843. Started by the brothers George and Charles Merriam in 1831, the G. & C. Merriam Company, as the firm was originally known, released its first American Dictionary in 1847. This revision of Webster’s 1841 dictionary, compiled by his son-in-law Chauncey Goodrich, cost just six dollars. Sales were robust, and the Webster family would reap more than $250,000 in royalties. In 1859, under Goodrich’s editorship, the firm published another edition, which featured pictorial illustrations and a section on synonyms.

That same year, Dr. C. A. Mahn was brought over from Berlin to clean up Webster’s fanciful etymologies. Published in 1864, “the Webster-Mahn,” as the first contemporary-looking Webster’s was commonly called, was edited by Yale philosophy professor Noah Porter. This was the first edition to rely on a team of lexicographers; among the distinguished contributors was William C. Minor, then a New Havenite who had just finished his surgery training at Yale Medical School. In his preface, Porter praised Dr. Minor, who had worked primarily on terms pertaining to natural history and geology, for his “great ability and zeal.” As readers familiar with Simon Winchester’s compelling narrative, The Professor and the Madman, know, Dr. Minor would later send James Murray thousands of quotations from his cell in England’s Broadmoor insane asylum. (Thus, as Winchester neglects to mention, the man who did so much to shape the Oxford English Dictionary actually received his training in lexicography from Porter.) Later a Yale president, Porter also edited the 1890 revision, Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language—the word “American” would no longer appear in the title of the unabridged—which contained 175,000 entries, one and a half times as many as in the previous edition.

When the Merriams’ copyright ran out in 1889, other companies began slapping the name “Webster” on the cover of their dictionaries. Today, “Webster’s” is a virtual synonym for a dictionary of American English. However, according to a district court ruling nearly a century ago, all publishers except Merriam-Webster—as the company has been called since 1982—must add the disclaimer, “This dictionary is not published by the original publishers of Webster’s dictionary or their successors.”


William Chester Minor (1834-1920), the most famous of the thousands of volunteers who gathered the OED’s illustrative quotations, was no amateur lexicographer, as historians have long assumed. In fact, two decades before he began working on the OED, Minor was paid $500 to define a wide range of scientific and medical terms for Webster’s. While James Murray was greatly impressed by Minor’s skills as a lexicographer—the editor would often ask the Broadmoor mental patient to review his complete notes for a given word—the eminent American naturalist and wordsmith Samuel Haldeman had grave doubts. In 1865, the professor complained to the publishers of Webster’s that the natural history section was the weakest part of the book and that Dr. Minor was incompetent.

The headquarters of Merriam-Webster in downtown Springfield—just a stone’s throw from the courthouse where Daniel Shays waged his rebellion a little more than two centuries ago—is a shrine to Noah Webster, Jr. When erecting the building shortly before World War II, its president selected its address—47 Federal Street—in order to pay homage to its first edition of Webster’s a century earlier. The lobby is filled with glass cases containing original dictionary pages in Webster’s hand, as well as early editions of his books, including his 1806 “compend.” Sitting in a conference room, the only area where words are permitted to be uttered in the otherwise phoneless workplace, the shy Perrault opens up about his craft. Echoing the hypercritical Webster, Perrault defines a good definition by “the absence of error. It can’t be too broad or too narrow. And it doesn’t strike you as wrong or stupid.” As an example of a clunker, he brings up the case of “fish stick,” which Webster’s once defined as “a stick of fish” before moving on to the current “small, elongated, breaded filet of fish.” That entry broke a cardinal rule, which forbids using a related word in a definition. “Clarity is my obsession,” Perrault adds, citing the credo of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Everything that can be said can be said clearly.” The lexicographer is rarely entirely satisfied with his own work: “The perfect definition is hard to come by. There are almost always shortcomings. But every once in a while, I jump up on my desk because I sense that I got it exactly right.”

Like his recent predecessors in Springfield, Perrault adheres to Noah Webster’s firm conviction that lexicographers should codify the language that people actually use. While this position is no longer hotly contested, that was not the case a generation ago. Upon its release in 1961, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, edited by Philip Gove, met with fierce opposition. In sharp contrast to Webster’s Second International Edition of 1934, “W3,” as it is known in the trade, assumed that correctness rests upon usage. Just as Noah Webster once faced a barrage of assaults for his purported attempt to destabilize the cosmic order with his “innovations,” so, too, did Gove. In a review scattered over twenty-five pages in the March 10, 1962 edition of The New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald could hardly contain his outrage:

The most important difference between Webster’s Second . . . and Webster’s Third . . . is that 3 has accepted as standard English a great many words and expressions to which 2 attached warning labels : slang, colloquial, erroneous, incorrect, illiterate . . .. Dr. Johnson, a dictionary-maker of the old school, defined lexicographer as “a harmless drudge.” Things have changed. Lexicographers may still be drudges, but they are certainly not harmless. They have untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up himself.

In a cartoon that appeared a couple of weeks later, the magazine summed up the hullabaloo in five words. “Sorry. Dr. Gove ain’t in,” says a G. C. Merriam secretary to a surprised visitor. Dr. Gove didn’t just list “ain’t” in his treasure trove of 450,000 entries; he also gave this slang term his imprimatur, noting that it is “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by cultivated speakers.” The harsh attacks were widespread. In a review entitled, “Dig Those Words,” The New York Times went after Gove for citing actor Jimmy Durante’s quip, “What I don’t dig over there is the British money,” as an authoritative quotation. But in “Webster’s Way Out Dictionary,” BusinessWeek conceded that Merriam’s bold new direction might eventually turn out to be a canny business move, observing that “a one-product company . . . has just stuck its neck out with a version that could easily prove 20 years ahead of its market.” In fact, once the furor died down, the thirteen-and-a-half-pound volume was widely considered a trailblazer. As one of America’s preeminent lexicographers put it in 1997, “Webster’s Third . . . attempted to apply the best standards of mid-twentieth century linguistics to dictionary-making. . . . No dictionary provides a fuller or more reliable picture of the American vocabulary at mid-century. . . . [it] remains the greatest dictionary of current American English.”

While “W3” has been revised about every five years since 1961, it has not yet been replaced. Nor is there even a murmur about a “W4” over in Springfield. A major reason is that the digital revolution has turned the dictionary business, like all other branches of publishing, upside down. “W3” is already primarily a Web-based publication, as annual subscriptions for online access, which cost thirty dollars, now sell better than copies of the printed book. In contrast, the Collegiate edition, which can now be viewed for free on the Web, continues to do well at bookstores. Merriam-Webster still plans to publish a new edition of the Collegiate, which has sold 56 million copies since 1898, every decade. The next edition, the twelfth, is slated for 2013. And, true to the spirit of Noah Webster, the company continues to track every new word in the language so that it can release an updated version of its flagship dictionary every year. Recent changes include the additions of “chick flick,” “blogosphere” and “LOL” as well as the elimination of “hodad” (a nonsurfer, who pretends to be a surfer), a term that the Gidget movies of the early 1960s popularized. Despite the challenge of adjusting to technological change, John M. Morse, the current publisher, remains bullish about the future. He isn’t afraid that the wiki-model will ever replace the work of professional lexicographers. Sounding like Noah Webster, Jr., Morse observes, “Writing accurate definitions is not fun. It’s hard work.”


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