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Merriam-Webster Helps Shape Evolution in Dictionary Publishing
John Morse, with Noah Webster, creator of America’s first dictionary.

John Morse, with Noah Webster, creator of America’s first dictionary.

‘The Age of Also.’

John Morse didn’t coin that phrase — credit usually goes to noted author and self-described “information architect” Richard Saul Wurman — but, as president and publisher of the Springfield-based dictionary maker Merriam-Webster, he’s used it many times to describe the company’s current view of the world and its product line.

Elaborating, Morse said that, while the hardbound version of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, now in its 11th edition, its paperback cousin, and other printed volumes remain the company’s bread and butter, there is considerable also when it comes to methods of accessing language information. Indeed, people can now also check the usage of affect and effect — the most-commonly referenced words day in and day out (affect is almost always a verb, while effect is usually a noun) — through CD-ROMs, the company’s many Web sites, a hand-held model, even via their PDA or cell phone.

That’s right, for $1.95 a month, individuals can now subscribe to a service that will enable them to access Merriam-Webster’s Web sites through their cell, giving new meaning to the phrase smartphone.

This isn’t something that Noah Webster, who created America’s first dictionary, or George and Charles Merriam, who revised Webster’s work and mainstreamed it, probably could have imagined. But it does fit nicely into their shared philosophy about putting information in people’s hands — by whatever means available.

And this is the message that Morse is leaving with people as he crisscrosses the country on a speaking tour devoted to the 200th anniversary of Noah Webster’s creation.The latest stop was the fabled Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver and a program that will later be broadcast on C-Span. During it, Morse talked about ‘also,’ but devoted significant time to another word — democracy — and how it effectively defines dictionary publishing.

“The dictionary is the quintessential democratic document,” Morse writes in the foreword of a booklet the company has published to commemorate the dictionary’s bicentennial. “Written for a nation, it is a document that describes its citizens’ thoughts and behavior. Indeed, it can be said that the nation writes its own dictionary, as in order for the dictionary to succeed, it must faithfully and fully reflect the language of the people and do so in a way that meets the people’s needs and expectations.”

This phenomenon explains why the the Collegiate, now in its 11th edition, is updated slightly every year with maybe 100 new words (the list for 2007 is not yet finalized). Morse added that a dictionary is not actually a book, but more a mirror held up to society, one that must be accessible — in every way that word is defined.

“A dictionary has to be convenient to use,” he explained. “On the print side, I think that’s been achieved; now, we have to achieve that on the electronic side.”
This issue, BusinessWest looks at the history and future of one of Springfield’s most venerable businesses — and Super 60 winner in the Total Revenue category. In simple terms, this is a company blending and balancing mission with technology.

“We’re really here to be the schoolmasters to the country, and maybe now the schoolmasters to the world,” Morse explained. “And we will use any available technology to do so.”

Word Association

“Well-engineered.”

That’s one of the phrases Morse used to describe the print dictionary, specifically the Collegiate, and one that many people might not expect.

“It’s the culmination of several hundred years of various forms of print technology coming to bear on that object,” he explained, referring to everything from the thumb notches that help people find a place to start, to the bold-faced ‘headwords’ at the top of each page that help narrow the search. “Most people can get to the particular piece of information they want within the dictionary usually in 10 to 30 seconds. And when you think that the dictionary holds, conservatively, maybe a million to 2 million separate pieces of information and you can get to yours in less than half a minute, you sense that this is a well-engineered product.”

And this explains why the print version of the dictionary has persisted despite the introduction of new, electronic products, said Morse, who said the prices of both hardbound ($26.95) and paperback ($8) versions of the 11th edition are other reasons.

Overall, sales of print products are flat, said Morse, meaning that, while they’re not going up, they’re not really going down, either. He was not very specific with numbers — this is a privately held business and a wholly owned subsidiary of Chicago-based Encyclopedia Britannica — but did say the company continues to grow due in large part to its ability to evolve but also remain true to the vision of both Noah Webster and the brothers Merriam.

“That’s an amazing price,” he said of the going rate for the 1,600-word hardbound volume, which he said is similar to that of a 400-page novel. “And there’s an historical aspect to this; that was the wisdom that George and Charles Merriam brought to the Merriam-Webster combination when they bought the company in 1843.”

“By the time Noah Webster died, his dictionary was big and expensive,” he continued. “What the Merriam brothers said was ‘let’s return the dictionary to what Noah Webster originally intended; let’s make it very inexpensive and have the widest possible distribution. That’s still the strategy today.”

The company’s ongoing dedication to that basic mission is what is really being celebrated this year, said Morse, adding that there are several programs scheduled to mark the dictionary’s bicentennial, including his speaking tour (next stops, the Prairie Light Bookstore and the Iowa City Public Library), a spelling bee, and a partnership with booksellers to promote local literacy; ‘Party like it’s 1806,’ shouts the company’s Web site.

The speaking tour’s programs are designed to be entertaining, but mostly enlightening, said Morse, adding that the story of why and how Noah Webster came to create A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language is fascinating but generally unknown.

And it is the why that Morse focuses on most.

“He was a very famous person in his own lifetime for things other than dictionary making,” he told BusinessWest. “He was very politically involved and one of the real founders of the U.S. Constitution. What made him decide to focus all his efforts on creating a new dictionary for this new country?”

Apparently, need was at the heart of the discussion; the only dictionaries available at the time were printed in England, and did not include American coinages such as skunk, hickory, or chowder.

“A national language is a national tie,” Webster was quoted as saying, “and what country wants it more than America?”

Webster’s first dictionary was small in size (408 pages, 37,000 entries) compared to later volumes, but significant in that it marked the beginning of American lexicography and set a direction for dictionary making that continues today, said Morse, adding that while the early dictionary was generally admired, it was not very popular because of its high price.

The task of popularizing, or democratizing, the dictionary fell to the Merriam brothers, who grew up in their father’s printing office in West Brookfield and in 1931 opened the G. & C. Merriam Company in Springfield, a retail stationery and book-selling operation that first published law books and bibles.

Ambitious, entrepreneurial, and opportunistic, the Merriam brothers acquired 1,400 unsold copies of Webster’s latest dictionary soon after his death in 1843, as well as the rights to publish and revise the work. They produced the first Merriam-Webster dictionary — An American Dictionary of the English Language (New Revised Edition) in 1847. Its $6 price tag (one third the original cost) led to the mainstreaming of the dictionary in homes and schools across the country.

A steady stream of new products emerged over the years, said Morse, listing the first unabridged dictionary in 1864, the Collegiate in 1898, the first paperback version in 1947, and the groundbreaking yet controversial Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, or simply Webster’s Third, introduced in 1961 complete with more-concise definitions and the word ain’t.

Today, the company produces more than 120 different products ranging from punctuation guides to the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary; the popular French-English Dictionary to Coined by Shakespeare, a compilation of words and phrases first penned by the Bard. The latest addition to the list, Merriam Webster’s Visual Dictionary, with 6,000 color illustrations and 20,000 definitions, hit bookstores earlier this month.

Coming to Terms

This wide diversity of products, as well as the platforms in which they are made available, speaks to life in the Age of Also, said Morse, describing it as a challenging time for dictionary publishers, but nonetheless one of opportunity. This is a period of slow transition, he explained, with accent on the adjective.

“Surprisingly, the print dictionary remains very robust,” he explained. “Unlike some other kinds of reference materials — the encyclopedia comes to mind — there has not yet been a massive switch from a print preference to an electronic preference, and there are many reasons for that.”

Sound engineering is at the top of that list, he said, adding that loyalty to the book and growing, if slow, acceptance of new platforms means that publishers must try to be all things to all people — even those who would use a cell phone to check the spelling of defenestration, the act of throwing someone or some thing out of a window.

This is where some of the challenge, and cost, comes into play, he continued, noting that the company has a growing list of both print and electronic products. For example, it has partnered with Franklin Electronic Publishers to create a hand-held version of the Collegiate dictionary (which Morse takes with him on his travels) that sells for $100. There is also a CD-ROM version, which got off to a very slow start when first introduced because some consumers thought they needed to put the disc in their hard drive each time they wanted to check a word, and has never really caught on.

Meanwhile, there are several Web sites, including www.merriamwebster.com, that provide convenience for consumers — they can look up a specific word or phrase, scroll by letter, or check the ‘word of the day’ for example — and some intriguing insight for publishers because they can now track where users are going.

“It’s really fascinating,” he said. “Until this, publishers put words into the dictionary, but they didn’t know which words people were looking up.

“What’s become clear to us from that record is that people are not using the dictionary for spelling; mostly, they’re looking things up for meaning,” he continued, adding that this conclusion was gleaned from a consistently high volume of visits to affect/effect, principal/principle, rein/reign/ rain, and other sets of homophones.

There is little rhyme or reason to the demographic breakdown of who’s using what products, said Morse, noting that many older people like online products, while somewhat surprising numbers of younger individuals still prefer the book.

From a business perspective, Morse said that, potentially, the cheapest way to create a dictionary is in electronic form — “how much does it cost to shoot electrons across the wires?” — but for now and the foreseeable future, the print products remain the most profitable.

“Talk to me again in five years and those numbers may have crossed, and I won’t care,” he explained. “Ultimately, what I’ve told people is that while we’re still a print dictionary predominantly, we are a print dictionary publisher contingently, which is to say that if the preference for people getting their language information switches from print to the Web or E-books or some other form, we’ll go there with them.

“Our principal mission in life is to get language information into the hands of interested users,” he continued. “And we really don’t care that much how we do it. We will find a profitable business model no matter where consumer preferences go.”

The Final Word

The list of ‘new’ words for the first and latest editions of the Collegiate show just how much the language — and society — has changed over the past 108 years.
In 1898, telephone, kindergarten, metabolism, hello, cocaine, and shortstop made their debuts. The list for the 2006 update to the 11th edition included ringtone, phishing, bird flu, cybersecurity, text messaging, and google.

The preponderance of terms from the world of telecommunications speaks to the Age of Also, said Morse, adding this is more than a crack in time; it’s an attitude.

And one that Merriam-Webster is helping to define.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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