DEATH OF A DICTIONARY.

Normally, my attitude toward dictionaries is the more the merrier; each does certain things better than others, and it’s good to be able to compare and contrast. I haven’t had much contact with Webster’s New World Dictionary since I was a kid; I remember enjoying its etymologies and classy-looking typeface back in those days, but since I have been professionally involved with words and language I have relied upon Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and American Heritage and rarely given a thought to the New World, occasionally riffling through it with nostalgic curiosity when I ran across it somewhere. If you’d asked me who used it, I’d have been at a loss. Now, thanks to Allan Metcalf’s Lingua Franca post, I know: journalists. And the reason? Idiotic, sheeplike herd behavior triggered by ill-informed, bilious attacks on one of the great achievements of American lexicography:

Back in the 1960s, Webster’s New World was the David that slew the Goliath of dictionaries, Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged. That one was published by Merriam-Webster, the nation’s most distinguished maker of dictionaries and direct heir of Noah Webster, America’s foremost lexicographer. [I omit the description of the bilious attacks, which you can read about in Metcalf’s piece or described at greater length by Geoff Nunberg here; you can read about the dictionary itself in this LH post.]
Careful reviewers noticed that the Second hadn’t been entirely prescriptive, either, and in fact contained definitions excoriated for permissiveness in the Third. But the mood was set, and to admit reliance on the Third was like confessing to possession of pornography. So what was a journalist to do? There had been a few events and inventions since the Second Unabridged of 1934, so an up-to-date dictionary was needed. But not a Merriam-Webster!
Fortunately, there was a company in Cleveland, Webster’s New World, that had no connection with Merriam-Webster and that published a nice, up-to-date college edition. (The name Webster isn’t trademarked and can be used by any dictionary.) So the non-Merriam became the book of choice.
Over the decades, the shock value of Webster’s Third has dissipated, but it never regained its pre-eminence. It has a place in newsrooms, but just second place.

First off, let me point out the parochialism of “slew the Goliath of dictionaries,” as if newspaper use were all that mattered; I repeat that in a long editorial career I have never seen a copy of Webster’s New World in an office. It might as well not have existed. And now, apparently, it is ceasing to exist; the start of Metcalf’s piece explains that despite the obfuscations of its publisher it appears to be moribund. As I said at the beginning of this post, ordinarily I would regret that, but now that I know how and why it came to be a journalistic standby, my reaction is: good, now let journalists start living in the real world.

Comments

  1. mollymooly says:

    The American Heritage Dictionary was specifically created in reaction to W3NID. I would have thought if you were trying to distance your product from a rival, you shouldn’t use a similar name. Pepsi-Cola is aimed at the person who doesn’t like Coca-Cola; Corky-Cola is aimed the moron in a hurry who does.

  2. The American Heritage Dictionary was specifically created in reaction to W3NID.
    Yes, but even at the beginning they didn’t go overboard (though they had some silly usage notes), and they’ve long since distanced themselves from their reactionary beginnings, becoming a fine dictionary with superb illustrations and a particular concern with etymology (which of course endears them to me).

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    By contrast to AHD, it sounds like WNWD just happened to be around when the W3NID controversy arose, having been previously prepared on whatever principles it was prepared on without a self-conscious desire to differentiate itself methodologically/ideologically from a competitor that had not yet arisen. I can’t really fault its proprietors if they happened to then benefit commercially from that controversy. I’m also not sure how the sheeplike tendency of journalists really played out in practice. The evidence we have from the thing you posted is that the AP Stylebook commends the WNWD. How many publications uncritically follow the AP Stylebook (as opposed to using it as a default when they haven’t bothered to come up with a house style of their own on something they actually care about) is not clear to me. Presumably somewhere out there data exists in archives about the relative sales numbers of various rival dictionaries at various points in time. Those might substantiate the David and Goliath story, or they might not.
    Finally, the lingua franca story doesn’t indicate that the title is being scrapped, but rather that there’s an attempt underway to sell it. Maybe that won’t work and it will be scrapped, but Wiley is similarly trying to sell (maybe piecemeal, maybe in one big package) e.g. the Frommer’s line of travel books and Cliffsnotes, which doesn’t mean they’re inevitably going to disappear.

  4. I agree with JWB. I’ve worked at several magazines and freelanced for others, and in none of them was AP Style used or held in special regard (Chicago is more popular, I think). Many magazines have their own house style guides, for better or worse. And I seem to recall there usually being several dictionaries on hand, for general reference. None of them were fetishized in the way that Metcalf seems to think. I suspect Metcalf doesn’t actually know anything much about journalism. Or maybe his column was actually written by G. Pullum…

  5. Ah, I feel better now. Why did I take Metcalf’s word for it? I should know better by now.

  6. I noticed that after a 14-year run, Webster’s New World Dictionary had no word of the year for 2010 or 2011. As the WOTY is mostly a free advertising gimmick, it connotes a lack of concern for the dictionary.
    They also skipped 1999, but perhaps they had an unbelievable Y2K party. Note that they also didn’t add their 2008 or 2009 WOTY to the linked list.

  7. David L.: The AP Stylebook is intended for newspapers, not magazines. Essentially every newspaper in North America, plus most of the radio and TV stations, are members of AP (which is a consortium, not a for-profit company like Reuters). And newspapers do take AP style very seriously, though they often override parts of it with house style rules, as JWB suggests.
    —former employee of AP (and Reuters)

  8. Over the last year the Oxford English Dictionary has inducted “wassup,” “BFF” and “muffin top”…says the NYT piece LH links to. I don’t have the latest OED available, so I would appreciate if someone could give me their citation for “wassup” as being a word – to me it’s just casual pronunciation of “what’s up”.
    It is in the NYT’s look-up dictionary, but amusingly, BFF is not. I find that it is teenage-speak for Best Friends Forever, (or in other meanings, Bangladesh Football Federation) so its an acronym, not a new word.

  9. From the OED:
    colloq. (now chiefly U.S.).
    ‘What’s up?’ ‘What is happening?’ ‘What is the matter?’ In later use freq. as an informal greeting.
    1902 A. Morrison Hole in Wall 31 Marr, ducking and lolling over the table, here looked up and said: ‘Wassup? Fiddler won’ go? Gi’m twopence an’ kick’m downstairs.’
    1927 P. MacDonald Patrol (1957) xiv. 119 ‘Whassup?’ he said, in a sibilant shout intended for a whisper.
    1992 Spin Mar. 34/3 ‘Wassup, Lo,’ Ice Cube greets me as I walk up to the door of his hotel room.
    1998 R. Stone Damascus Gate ii. l. 371 ‘Yo, Sonia,’ he said, finding her sad at the window. ‘Whassup, home?’
    2004 N.Y. Times (National ed.) 13 May a1/1 Kim from Sydney, Australia, said she called a phone on the corner of 57th and Broadway in Manhattan, where a guy answered, ‘Wassup’ and said he had never heard of Australia.
    I agree it’s a bit odd that it has it’s own entry, being essential eye-dialect, but I guess it’s common enough in print and it is inneristing that someone wrote it that way over a hundred years ago.

  10. The AP Stylebook is a guide to writing in journalistic style, i.e., for newspapers. It is a prescriptive work, saying what is and what isn’t permissible.
    The Chicago Manual of Style is a guide to publishing. It describes approaches to setting text in type. Its careful, deliberate way lends itself to magazine and book work.
    I’m sure a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style is to be found in all the better newsrooms — and in many ad agencies for that matter. But the AP Stylebook is on or in the desk of every reporter.

  11. The Random House Dictionary appears to be dead too, or has anyone heard otherwise?

  12. Well, that’s a shame. I always liked the Random House, even though I saw it as rarely as the New World.

  13. Joe R: So even though “wassup” is actually just re-creating a verbal contraction, it’s regarded as a *word* because it has been printed. To me, it’s not a word, like “word” or “sugar”, but the editors of the OED know these things – I just learn them with bewilderment…

  14. Idiotic, sheeplike herd behavior triggered by ill-informed, bilious attacks on one of the great achievements of American lexicography:
    I venture to suggest that not one journalist in 100. or 1,000, knew about the Third Edition issue. It was confined to a very small group which writes about such things.
    my reaction is: good, now let journalists start living in the real world.
    And may I venture further, to suggest that the community of expert linguists is far smaller than that of journalists, who follow the house style, from wherever it comes, mainly in the US the AP Stylebook, and when pressed, use whatever dictionary is available. That, for journalists under (now instant) deadlines, is the real world.

  15. I venture to suggest that not one journalist in 100. or 1,000, knew about the Third Edition issue.
    I’m sure that’s true today, but it certainly wasn’t true in 1961, when it was a huge issue that even your average Time-Life reader was familiar with, let alone journalists.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    wassup, etc
    Monolingual dictionaries are not just for literate native speakers living in the country where the dictionaries are produced. They list “words” found in print because they need to be useful to a variety of people, including students and foreigners. Most Americans readers will immediately recognize “Wassup” as their “What’s up”, but even a very proficient speaker from (for instance) India or Europe might not be familiar with this pronunciation or even the whole phrase, and need to look it up. People who read English but don’t have much contact with the spoken language may also need to look up “wassup” or “dunno” and similar shortenings, since those are found in dialogues in novels, plays, etc.

  17. jamessal says:

    The Random House Dictionary appears to be dead too, or has anyone heard otherwise?
    Its entries are usually the first at Dictionary.com, with this in small print beneath:

    Dictionary.com Unabridged
    Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2012.

    Can’t be entirely dead, I guess.

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