One way in which contemporary dictionaries are a clear improvement over their precursors is in their superior illustrations. For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has gorgeous photographs (you can see a few in the sample pages shown here). But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has elegant line drawings, and today’s NY Times Magazine features an interview with Jeffrey Middleton, who’s responsible for the 230 new illustrations. Before I continue with excerpts, however, I’ll torment you with a question. With one exception, every drawing illustrates a noun. What do you suppose the exception is? (Hint: it’s an adjective.)

For laughs around the office, Middleton would pull old drawings from Merriam-Webster’s archives, which go back 100 years and include a MONKEY that looks ”for all the world like Ross Perot” and a goofy, grinning CARIBOU. ”I cannot imagine why anyone would draw huge eyelashes on animals or make them smile,” he says.
…Middleton admits that autobiography informs many of his illustration choices. ”I did get away with doing things like a volcano, because it’s a personal interest of mine. Areas where I have personal knowledge, it’s very heavily biased in that direction.” The CHAISE LONGUE, for example, is the very one that he and his older brother used as a teeter-totter when they were kids (much to his father’s displeasure). Because Middleton has spent much of his life in Oregon and Arizona, the flora and fauna of those states also reside in the pages of the 11th. Middleton says: ”I thought everyone knew what a THUNDER EGG was. I didn’t know it was an Oregon colloquialism. And I really wanted to put it in because I think it’s a cool thing.” The STREETCAR was modeled on the one that runs through Tucson; the DEVIL’S CLAW he found in his aunt and uncle’s backyard, near Saguaro National Park. There was a review process, and Middleton had to answer to higher-ups, of course, ”so they make sure I don’t get out of hand.”
Beyond getting at the essence of a thing, another reason for using illustrations instead of photographs is to keep the dictionary from looking out of date in the 10 years (on average) between editions. ”Someone may see a photograph and compare it with something they see on the street, and they may say it doesn’t look the same,” Middleton explains. While many of the new entries come from technology—BOTOX, ACTIVE-MATRIX and DOT-COMMER are all additions to the 11th edition—illustrations tend not to. ”Anything technology-related dates quickly,” Middleton says. ”Cars, computers, microchips—if I were to draw an Amiga computer from 10 years ago, it would look pretty bad right now. People would giggle and point.” Through the decades, GRAND TOURING CAR and wrestling’s HAMMERLOCK have been deleted for this reason. Not that datedness is the only reason for removing old illustrations. Middleton took MUZZLE out of the unabridged third because, he said: ”I couldn’t take it. The dog was such a sad individual.” And PIÑATA didn’t make it into the 11th because of ”the violence of it all. Many people liked that picture, but it’s a collegiate dictionary, and the piñata seemed incongruous.”

Violence? A piñata? Ah well, never mind.
You can’t link to individual definitions at the Merriam-Webster site, but you can look things up, and the definition for “thunder egg” (I know you were wondering) is ‘chalcedony in rounded concretionary nodules’; you can see some here. Oh, and the one illustrated word that isn’t a noun? It’s “rampant.”


  1. Oh, the *heraldic* meaning of “rampant.” You don’t even want to know where my mind was…

  2. Filip Salomonsson says

    Actually, you can link to them. It just takes a little URL trickery: here’s the definition of rampant, for example.

  3. Ah! Thank you – I’m terrible at this stuff.

  4. I use my trusty Merriam-Webster Collegiate 7th ed.(1967) every day. There’s something comical and Max Ernst-ish about the illustrations. One that always sticks in my mind is the illustration for “blucher,” which is a kind of shoe. Since I’ve seen that picture a million times, the blucher has always seemed like a more important player in the world of shoes than it probably is. Did I miss a big blucher fad in the late sixties?
    Also, this edition has a diagram of a horse’s hoof (unshod) illustrating nine different features, and, on the facing page, a diagram of a horse on which no less than 35 different parts are indicated. Is this some sort of overcompensation for Samuel Johnson’s “pastern” blunder?
    Anyway, I have to say I was a bit shaken by the Times interview–for some reason I had imagined the choice of illustrations was somehow more scientific. (And just between you and me, stylistically speaking I’m not too crazy about the illustrations shown in the article–let’s hope it’s just poor reproduction.)
    Slightly OT–I remember reading somewhere that a dictionary (could it have been the new Collegiate?) was going to drop the Beaufort Scale table. I never used it, but I always felt a little better knowing it was there.

  5. Interesting; the 9th ed. (1987) (the oldest I have on hand) has no illustration for “blucher,” so I guess it didn’t take long for the shoe’s popularity to get down-at-heels.
    So Pete, when are you going to post something at New Companion, huh? Promises, promises…

  6. Shame is a very powerful motivator!

Speak Your Mind