History of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary Part 1

About the major reference book Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, history of the book's creation and publishing.


History: Long before he began work on his American dictionary, Noah Webster had seen the need for one. English-language dictionaries then in existence ignored American words and used English spellings and pronunciations exclusively. Convinced that a national language would help unify his country, the multitalented and intensely patriotic Webster moved his family to New Haven and in 1803 settled into a rigorous schedule of research. After three years of effort, Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. Many educators praised it, but a few disagreed with his spelling reforms and quibbled about some of his pronunciations. Webster ignored critics and plunged into the preparation of a much longer dictionary, which consumed his energies for the next two decades. Finally, in November, 1828, the two-volume, 70,000-word American Dictionary of the English Language came off the press.

Upon Webster's death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam acquired the rights to his dictionary. The Merriam brothers had been selling everything from hymnals to wallpaper in their Springfield, Mass., bookstore, but dictionaries soon became their specialty. They brought out the first Merriam-Webster unabridged in 1847 and revised it in 1864. In 1890 they published the First International, and in 1898 the First Collegiate was issued. Since then, the International has gone through three editions and the Collegiate through eight. The G. & C. Merriam Company, still based in Springfield, is now owned by Encyclopaedia Britannica.

When the Third International was first published in 1961, it was greeted with vituperation from many word users. Atlantic called it "a calamity." Life said it was "monstrous" and "abominable." The New York Times accused its editors of betraying a public trust and lowering the standards of the language. Most of the criticism was aroused by Merriam's editorial philosophy, which holds that dictionaries shouldn't try to dictate or influence the development of language, but should only record its actual use. The criticism didn't change that philosophy. The editorial board continues to maintain that "everyone has his own particular linguistic prejudices, but they don't belong in the dictionary."

"The purpose of the dictionary is to provide a record of the language as it is used by educated people who have been speaking and writing it all their lives," says H. Bosley Woolf, Merriam's editorial director. The scrupulous observance of this precept has made Merriam-Webster's one of the most all-encompassing and well-documented dictionaries available. Since it covers a variety of material, it is also a good general reference source. For instance, the New Collegiate contains 2,600 biographical names, 12,000 geographical names, 500 foreign words and phrases, a list of 2,600 American colleges and universities, and a table containing the Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Russian, and Sanskrit alphabets.

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