Lexicographer (and jazzman) Peter Sokolowski (Time called his one of the 140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2013!) invited me to a talk he gave this evening on the UMass Amherst campus, just five minutes’ drive from here (though we allowed half an hour lead time for snowy roads and unfamiliar geography, and needed every bit of it); as the announcement put it, “His talk, ‘The Dictionary as Data’ examines not only the transition of dictionaries from print to digital, but also what we have learned about English from having over a billion words looked up per year on the Merriam-Webster web site.” It was fascinating, as you might imagine — not only is the topic intrinsically interesting to anyone who cares about words and dictionaries, but he had wonderful stories about discovering there had been a sudden spike in look-ups of some unexpected word and trying to find out why. Usually it turned out to be a news story that was easily found on the internet (when Michael Jackson died, everybody and his brother looked up “emaciated”), but once it was a word used on a TV show that a lot of people were watching but that left not a trace online. Peter is a wonderful speaker, and it’s no wonder M-W has him doing their Ask the Editor videos (here he is, for example, on “hopefully”).
However, I wanted to take mild issue with a couple of things he said, and since I didn’t get a chance in the Q&A afterwards I figured I’d do so here. One was when he said (in the context of Bill O’Reilly’s use of uncommon words) that snollygoster (“A shrewd, self-interested but unprincipled person”) was “one of the rare words dropped from the Collegiate.” Now, as a professional editor I have used the Merriam-Webster Collegiate for over a quarter of a century (I have copies of the last four editions), and one of my little hobbies when a new edition comes out is to go through a few pages comparing them with the corresponding section of the previous one to see what’s in and what’s out, and (as is only logical) there are quite a few words dropped each time. If that weren’t the case, the Collegiate would be almost as fat as the Unabridged (though it does get a bit bigger each time; the eighth edition had 1,568 pages, the eleventh has 1,664). [As des von bladet points out in the comments, “one of the rare words dropped” probably means that the words that are dropped are not often used, rather than (as I took it) that words are rarely dropped from the Collegiate; my apologies to Peter for my misunderstanding, assuming that's what it was!]
I’m sure he’d agree with me on that; he wouldn’t agree on this next point, and neither (I presume) would any other M-W editor, but I insist that their hallowed tradition of putting the senses in chronological order is a bad one and should be dropped. He made a point of saying how nice it was to see the historical progression, and yes, that is nice — as a lover of word histories, that’s exactly the sort of thing I want to know. But most people are not lovers of word histories, they just want to know what a word means, and they assume that the first definition the dictionary gives is the main one and often don’t bother with any of the others. Don’t take my word for it; go ask a random sample of people. I have had to explain how this works to professional editors, never mind laymen; people simply don’t read the prefaces to dictionaries, and they don’t care about how Noah Webster or Philip Gove did it. If you want your dictionary to be the great democratic institution it can be, you need to aim it at the average user, not the aficionado of lexicography. If people want more word history than they get in the etymology, well, that’s what the OED is for.
Update. I’m pleased (and astonished!) to report that M-W is changing its position on word order; Peter wrote me:
And about the word order: it’s already changed as you indicate in the new work ongoing for the Unabridged online. Going forward, that’s the way we’ll do things. This is already the policy in the most recently edited M-W dictionary, the Learner’s (check out the definitions at learnersdictionary.com). For the Unabridged, when the word’s date refers to a sense that is not the first one, the oldest sense will be listed in parenthesis.
Changing the Unabridged and Collegiate will take some time, but that is our ultimate goal.
The most useful U.S. dictionary is getting even more useful!