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.