Merriam-Webster and Webster's Third

By S. Ross

The Rise of Merriam-Webster

Noah Webster died in 1843, two years after the second edition of his unabridged dictionary was published. G. & C. Merriam—founded in 1831 in Springfield, Massachusetts by brothers George and Charles Merriam—bought the remaining unbound sheets of that edition, and obtained from Noah's heirs the right to publish revisions (Leavitt, 42–5). To do so, they hired a panel of editorial specialists in various fields, and Prof. Chauncey A. Goodrich of Yale—"Webster's literary executor and long-time confidant"—as the editor in chief (49). The resulting work, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New Revised Edition), was released in 1847, and had 85,000 entries— 10,000 more than the previous edition (50).

Furthermore, the Merriams bet on a new marketing strategy. The previous edition had been released at $15 for two volumes; the new one was bound in one volume and offered for just $6. The gambit paid off; the lowered price led to greatly increased sales, allowing them to make more profit on volume (Leavitt, 47–8).

The Dictionary War

Merriam faced competition in the form of Joseph E. Worcester. Worcester, who had once worked with Noah Webster, opposed Webster's radical reforms to spelling and pronunciation, and published his own condensed dictionary in 1835. He followed this with the unabridged Worcester's Universal and Critical Dictionary in 1846. There was intense competition between the Webster and Worcester camps; each side accused the other of plagiarism and sloppy work, and developed its own fervent fans and defenders (Leavitt, 53–4).

Merriam-Webster's dictionary was generally more popular, but the competition forced them to accelerate their development. Knowing that Worcester was about to release a new edition, the Merriams assembled their own expanded dictionary in 1859, adding new terms, supplements, and a 81-page section of illustrations (Leavitt, 56–8).

G. & C. Merriam then began working on a complete overhaul of their dictionary. They enlisted some thirty editors in various fields, plus many more part-time editors and full-time readers (Leavitt, 60). The new "Royal Quarto Edition" was released in 1864. By the end of the century, Merriam-Webster had decisively won the war (65).

The next challenge was posed by knockoffs. Noah Webster's earlier dictionaries were out of copyright, enabling other publishers to reprint them and create their own derivative works. Court rulings soon established that such editions could use the Webster's name. G. & C. Merriam ran ads stressing that such cheap reprints were obsolete, and that only their own dictionary was genuine and up-to-date. They continued development to ensure that their dictionary was always on the cutting edge of lexicography. The 1864 edition was reissued with new words, emendations, and supplements in 1879, 1882 (by subscription), and 1884 (Leavitt, 72–5).

Webster's International

While Noah Webster had set out to create a specifically American dictionary, the later editions were being used throughout the English-speaking world. This was reflected in the title of the next extensive revision, the 1890 Webster's International Dictionary. This edition had 175,000 entries, an increase of 56,000 over the 1864 edition (Leavitt, 77).

Webster's New International Dictionary followed in 1909, with 400,000 entries. This edition introduced the practice of including entries in smaller print at the bottom of each page for cross-references, rare obsolete words, and foreign language terms (Neilson, xvi). The dictionary was well received, and, in light of later developments, it's worth noting the positive review in the New York Sun:

The editors have let down the bars for words that are common in conversation, even when not admitted into literature. . . . Their aim has been to make the dictionary not a mere standard of literary acceptance but a register of all English terms that are in use and need to be explained. While this may put an end to the worship of the dictionary as the arbiter of what is right and wrong use, it adds immensely to its practical utility and in explaining whatever words puzzle the persons who consult it. (Laughlin, 107)

Webster's Second

The next major revision came in 1934, which introduced the dictionary some would come to regard as Merriam's crowning achievement. Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, known hereafter as Webster's Second, contained 12,000 illustrations and 552,000 entries (plus 35,000 geographical entries and 13,000 biographical entries, for a total of 600,000, including derivatives and compounds).

Once again, the new edition was widely acclaimed. The English Journal noted that "Many thousand new words included now in the general vocabulary make the work as authoritative and inclusive as a rapidly growing language like ours permits. It is, for instance, so rich in slang and argot that a special work hardly need be consulted" (Laughlin, 108). Others praised the work along the same lines, noting both the work's comprehensiveness and its success in remaining on the cutting edge of language.

Webster's Third

In 1961, G. & C. Merriam released its next major revision: Webster's Third New International Dictionary, more commonly known as Webster's Third. Edited by Philip Gove, this was a completely new work, incorporating a number of changes.

The usage labels were made to seem less judgmental. Webster's Second had included such labels as "colloquial," "slang," "cant," "erroneous," and "vulgar." While these labels were intended to be descriptive of the contexts and ways in which these words were employed and received, dictionary users tended to take them as value judgments: these were bad words, and Webster's disapproved of them. To combat this perception, Webster's Third retained only "slang," "substandard," and "nonstandard," and used those sparingly.

Previously, entries for proper nouns had been capitalized; Webster's Third used lowercase entries throughout, indicating words that were always or usually capitalized with cap. or usu. cap. The latter was applied even to such terms as "united states." (The one exception, according to R.W. Burchfield, was "God" [320].)

Webster's Third contained a wealth of new words, including slang; among its 450,000 entries were 100,000 new words or new meanings. As an advertisement for the dictionary explained, it presented "the English language as it is spoken and written today" (Display Ad 342). Cut were very obsolete words—this edition dispensed with the small-type entries of the previous two editions—lists of obvious prefix combinations, and most geographical and biographical terms, which were now covered by separate works.

The resulting dictionary was intended to be the new standard-bearer for American lexicography, on the cutting edge of modern vocabulary and linguistic study.

Critical Reception

Instead, all hell broke loose. Critic after critic decried the permissiveness of the new dictionary, claiming that it canonized linguistic abominations. Why, it even claimed that "ain't" was "used orally in most parts of the United States by cultivated speakers"! (That this was true was beside the point; the dictionary had no business saying so.) The removal of most of the specific labels for slang terms was criticized, as were the lack of normal punctuation within entries and the lack of capital letters, which struck many as bizarre.

The New York Times editorial page declared that that the editors of Webster's Third had failed to live up to their responsibility as authorities on the English language, suggesting "that they not throw out the printing plates of the Second Edition. There is likely to be a continuing demand for it; and perhaps that edition can be made the platform for a new start" (Word Book, 78–9). Indeed, Times staffers were instructed to continue to follow Webster's Second for spelling and usage (Bernstein, 122–3).

The Richmond News Leader called the new edition "a fighting document. . . . we feel certain that the defenders of linguistic purity will win this war in the end. No school or library is compelled to buy the new Webster's; no English teacher need respect its corruptions" (Webster's Lays, 30–1).

Others had a more measured response. Over in the New York Times Book Review, Mario Pei was critical about a few details, but remained mostly positive: "[Webster's Third] will enjoy a healthy life, even if not too prolonged. It is the closest we can get, in America, to the Voice of Authority" (Pei, 6). But for the most part, the dictionary set off a storm of controversy.

What Happened?

An article in Business Week sums up what most people considered to be the crux of the matter:

Since Dr. Samuel Johnson published his famed lexicon in 1755, dictionaries have been mostly "prescriptive"—establishing what is right in meaning and pronunciation. But in the last half century a new science, linguistics, has been emerging. It strives to describe a language in its present state, without getting into judgments of what's "correct." The new Webster is based on those theories, and it's the first unabridged dictionary to bring this new science to the public. (57–8)

Another analysis, in College English, claims that the difference wasn't between prescriptive and descriptive approaches, but rather between the varieties of language being described. In previous editions, "they took as their norm for usage the practice of persons in the community who were, more or less, professional writers. Oral influence was discounted. The new Webster III reverses this stand. As never before, what falls on the ear is recorded: pronunciation variants, words chiefly heard, seldom written" (Ong, 109).

These assessments don't hold up to scrutiny. As Rosemary Laughlin pointed out in 1967, and as quoted in the earlier sections above, the previous editions had been lauded for just the qualities that were now denounced as inappropriate innovations: recording the way language was actually being used, both in print and in speech, at all strata of society. What had been a virtue was now seen as a vice.

The real problem had more to do with 1961 society than the dictionary. The 1950s emphasis on absolute values and conformance to societal norms was starting to be threatened, and those invested in the old order felt under siege. As the Chicago Daily News put it,

Relativism is the reigning philosophy of our day, in all fields. Not merely in language, but in ethics, in politics, in every field of human behavior. . . . Our attitude toward language merely reflects our attitude toward more basic matters. It is not terribly important whether we use "ain't," or "like" instead of "as"—except as symptoms of a general decay in values. If everything is a matter of taste and preference and usage, then we are robbing ourselves of all righteous indignation against evil. (Harris, 81)

From the standpoint of this relativist in 2005, there was indeed an attitude problem in 1961, but it wasn't on the part of the lexicographers. In another era, the wealth of new words and usages would have been cause for celebration. In that era, it was seen as opening the floodgates of moral decay.


Bucking societal trends tends not to be good for business. While profitable, the Merriam-Webster dictionaries have never since held the central position they once did. The door was opened for competition in a way not found since Worcester.

American Heritage attempted a hostile takeover of G. & C. Merriam, with the intention of jettisoning Webster's Third and restoring proper standards. When this failed (Merriam was instead sold to Encyclopædia Britannica in 1964), they created the American Heritage Dictionary, released in 1969. In a unique form of democratic prescriptivism, they included usage notes voted upon by a panel of educated users of English. Three more unabridged editions have followed, most recently in 2000.

Webster's New World Dictionary also seized the opportunity, releasing a new college dictionary in 1970; while recording a wide spectrum of American usage, it contained many labels indicating variations in when a word might or might not be used. Since 1976, it has been the dictionary of choice for the New York Times, the Associated Press, and United Press International.

Most tellingly, it has been more than 40 years since Webster's Third, and Merriam-Webster shows no sign of preparing a new edition. The flagship product has become the Collegiate Dictionary, which has been through five editions since 1967. I can only suppose that, with the increased competition, overhauling the unabridged dictionary would be too expensive to justify.


Copyright 2005 S. Ross. All rights reserved.