In a long article published in Slate on 12 January 2015,
Stefan Fatsis chronicles the work that is going into updating Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.
This revision is, and will be, available only online. To call this new version of Merriam-Webster’s flagship publication, officially known as the Unabridged
, a ‘new edition’ would therefore be misleading; instead, revised entries are being posted online in a continuous process, and the definitions of completely new entries are posted in batches of 100 as they are completed and approved.
At over 11,000 words, Fatsis’s article certainly qualifies as a long-form feature. But this allows him to describe in more detail than I can do justice to here the process of documenting and compiling new entries and revising existing ones, and the various factors that govern the judgments and decisions that go into it. Here is a bare outline of its scope:
The New Words file contains about 1,700 nominees for word-dom. But it isn’t the sum and substance of the Unabridged revision. Merriam plans to re-examine and when necessary—and it’s usually necessary—rewrite each of more than 476,000 entries from the most recent printing of the Third, in 2002, when the original 1961 edition, plus its seven addenda, was first made available online. The current project began with a few staff members in 2009 and has since ramped up. Merriam has issued three updates, which it is calling “Releases”: 4,800 new or revised entries plus new senses of existing entries in January 2013 [...] Release 4 is due in the spring.
Fatsis also gives an account of the evolution of the scholarly approach that Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers are following today. In particular, he goes into some detail regarding the hostile reception that Webster’s Third
garnered when it appeared in 1961 under the editorship of Philip B. Gove:
The Third triggered a full-on culture war, one that began with a poorly written Merriam press release touting the appearance of ain’t in the dictionary. Ain’t actually was in the Second, but Gove, and in some instances the Third itself, did a lousy job of explaining that the inclusion of a word—that is, an acknowledgment of its existence—did not amount to an endorsement of how it was used in speech or writing. The floodgates opened. Critics liberal and conservative alike attacked the Third as an assault on proper English, an air-raid siren of social and linguistic decay.
The backlash against Webster’s Third
spawned some heavyweight competition with the publication in 1969 of American Heritage’s American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
“complete with a usage panel of more than 100 editors, journalists, and professors, including Wilson Follett, Dwight Macdonald, and other fervent critics of the Third. Random House also published an unabridged dictionary, in 1966”.
The current editorial policy for entries in the Unabridged
has involved reinstating notes on usage (for instance, to indicate that a word is commonly regarded as slang); these had been dropped in the Third.
It also replaces the telegraphic style of that edition with reader-friendly descriptions which are more detailed than previously — a luxury made possible by the Web version’s absence of the space constraints with which its single-volume print-format predecessors had had to contend.
In 2010, a group of scholars at Harvard University and MIT performed a quantitative analysis of Google’s then-new database of 5.2 million digitized books, which included 361 billion words in English. They estimated that, as of 2000, the English lexicon included more than 1 million unique words, and compared that corpus with the words in the Unabridged and the American Heritage Dictionary. In a paper published in Science, the researchers concluded that “52 percent of the English lexicon—the majority of the words used in English books—consists of lexical ‘dark matter’ undocumented in standard references. [...] A traditional lexicographer doesn’t catalog every word known to humankind. The Unabridged is in fact a very much abridged compilation of the English language—it’s just not quite as abridged as other dictionaries. What a lexicographer does, then, is decide whether a word has become established in the language, determine how its use has evolved, and explain that to readers.
The process of revision and updating has been made both more interesting and more demanding with the advent of crowdsourced lexicography — in other words, ordinary people defining words themselves. Merriam-Webster’s compilers are having to find what they think is the right balance between accepting all comers and maintaining their own authority as linguists who possess the expertise to judge when and whether novel words or usages are passing fads, or enduring contributions to the language.
As if this is not enough of a challenge for Merriam-Webster, as a company it has also had to decide on its best strategy for surviving the general shift of the public from buying print dictionaries to looking up words online. Accordingly, it made its best-selling product, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition,
available online free of charge but ad-supported. The more comprehensive and in-depth Unabridged
is accessible via an ad-free subscription that currently costs $29.95 a year or $4.95 a month. (By comparison, a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary
(OED) costs an eye-watering $295 a year or $29.95 a month.)
Some other dictionary publishers have not adapted to the changing marketplace as well as Merriam-Webster has:
As more readers went online for definitions, book sales slowed and the dictionary business contracted. Random House stopped revising its college dictionary in 1999; its staff was absorbed by Dictionary.com. Webster’s New World Dictionary, written and edited in Cleveland since its inception in 1951, didn’t fill vacancies and bounced among corporate owners. (A fifth edition was published in August by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; the last full-time staffer in Cleveland worked on the book from home.) The American Heritage Dictionary, which has been owned by Houghton since its debut in 1969, has four full-time lexicographers on staff; its latest edition, published in 2011, relied on a Rolodex of freelance lexicographers.
Sales of the 11th edition of the Collegiate, released in 2003, didn’t approach the boffo figures of the 1980s, failing to crack a million in its first year and declining ever since. [John] Morse [Merriam’s president] doesn’t envision publishing a 12th edition anytime soon. Given the dearth of competitive pressure on the print side now, “trying to tear apart the Collegiate every 10 years and give it that level of scrutiny is something we just don’t have to do,” he says. “No dictionary user online is looking around for the copyright date.” But the book isn’t being neglected either. The 11th edition is still in print, and Merriam adds 150 or so new words a year. That rollout gets media attention, which in turn sells hard copies. “It’s nowhere near the point where you would consider not publishing,” Morse says.
Finally, what about the future?
When I ask Morse and other Merriam editors when the Unabridged might get to zzz, or whatever the final word might be, the answer is “after I retire,” “after I’m dead,” or “never.” The OED estimates its overhaul will be completed in 2037. Merriam isn’t even bothering with an end date. “When we get to Z, we’ll presumably continue right on to A again,” Perrault says. In the digital age, modern lexicography is a treadmill cranked up to the highest speed, like in the closing credits of The Jetsons. No matter how fast lexicographers define, they can’t outrace the evolution of the language.