History of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary Part 2

About the major reference book Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, examples from the book, trivia, and the operation today.


Modern Operation: Merriam's 20 full-time lexicographers are constantly searching for new words and new uses of old ones. They receive more than 200 publications regularly, solicit sample copies from several hundred local papers, and gather any other printed matter that comes their way--catalogs, play programs, annual reports, advertising brochures, and even menus. Editors spend an average of two hours a day scanning these materials at their desks. And they pick up new words outside the office when shopping, dining out, or vacationing.

All the new words, spellings, and uses they spot are recorded on three-by-five slips of paper called citations, which are then filed for posterity in long rows of chest-high cabinets. In addition, editors keep their ears open for new and unusual word pronunciations, which also are recorded on citations. Currently, there are over 12.5 million citations in the files, some dating back over a century. About 200,000 new citations are added each year.

An associate editor reads the citations produced each month and lists the "bright new words" that look like prime candidates for future dictionaries. Whether those terms ever get into the dictionary depends largely on how many citations are collected for them over the next few years. But there aren't any hard-and-fast rules on what goes in and what stays out. For instance, kung fu appeared in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary despite only four citations for the word. In the latest edition of the Collegiate, over 22,000 new words and meanings have been included. Through the painstaking citation process, Merriam continually updates its dictionaries, ensuring its users as modern a reference work as possible.

Size and Distribution of Sales: In the Third International's first year--1961--sales were double those of the peak year of the Second International and have risen steadily since. During the fiscal year 1977, over 80,000 copies were sold. The Eighth New Collegiate is far and away the most popular in the highly competitive market for desk-size dictionaries. Its predecessor sold more than 10 million copies in 10 years, and Merriam executives expect the latest New Collegiate to do even better. It should have no difficulty fulfilling their expectations. For both 1976 and 1977, sales topped 1 million.

Examples of Typical Material:

From the New Collegiate--

jai alai\'hi-,li, ,hi-e-'li\n [Sp, fr. Basque, fr. jai festival + alai merry]: a court game somewhat like handball played by two or four players with a ball and a long curved wicker basket strapped to the right wrist

nitty-gritty \'nit-e-, grit-e-\n [origin unknown]: the actual state of things: what is ultimately essential and true -- nitty-gritty adj

Unusual Facts about It: The Third contains all but two of the most common "obscenities." One of them, fuck, was deleted at the last minute by company executives despite a 3-in. stack of citations dating back to a 1788 letter from Robert Burns and including modern usages in such publications as Library Journal, Harper's, and Esquire. But it went into the New Collegiate in 1973 without a peep from executives. About a dozen readers, however, have written to complain--one of them a U.S. Marine Corps colonel. (The other word, a 12-letter noun with 50 citations that span 10 years and that are mostly handwritten so as not to offend the typists, still hasn't made it.)

Future Plans: Merriam is broadening its product mix, adding new general reference works in the areas of biography, history, geography, and language. Future probabilities include dictionaries of music, science, and mathematics, along with a dictionary for preschoolers.

A.F. and R.M. rep.

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