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Death of a Dictionary? Or an Abduction?

Something odd has happened to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the dictionary of choice for journalists. It’s still there, like the grin on the Cheshire cat, but its body—the editor and editorial office—seems to have vanished.

The dictionary is still listed by its adopted publisher, John Wiley & Sons. From Wiley, or from Amazon or your friendly local bookseller, you can still get a copy of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, fourth edition, in print or on CD-ROM. There’s even an iPhone and iPad app that came out in version 3.1 last September. Despite all that, there’s no evidence that anyone has worked to keep the dictionary up to date in the past couple of years.

As recently as 2009, Webster’s New World seemed in good health. From the dictionary’s office, in Cleveland, at the end of that year, the editor, Mike Agnes, announced that the word of that year should be distracted driving. You can see him say so in a YouTube video.

But since then the office has been closed, and Agnes is nowhere to be found. He is out of touch even with lexicographers and linguists who knew him well.

I’ve sought in vain for definitive information about the dictionary’s current condition. Several people at Wiley told me they’d find out and let me know, but none of them has. One person said a new edition was in the works for 2013, but that seemed to be contradicted by this March 7 announcement:

“John Wiley & Sons Inc. … has retained Allen & Company LLC to explore the sale of a number of consumer print and digital publishing assets in its Professional/Trade business that no longer align with the company’s long-term strategies. The assets are in travel (including the well-known Frommer’s brand), culinary, general interest, nautical, pets, crafts, Webster’s New World, and CliffsNotes.”

If Webster’s New World becomes moribund, it will end half a century during which it reigned as the dictionary of reference for most journalists. It came to that position not so much because of what it was, but because of what it wasn’t.

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.

The Unabridged was a single volume of some 3,000 pages, weighing more than 10 pounds. Its second edition (1934) held a place of honor in newsrooms, schools, and libraries. Great was the excitement when a third edition was announced for 1961. But the excitement turned to shock when reviewers discovered that the Third was reporting actual usage rather than prescribing proper language. It even had an entry for ain’t that did not totally condemn the word: “though disapproved by
many and more common in less-educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain’t I.” No longer could you say “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.”

Life, for example, declared: “Webster’s, joining the say-as-you-go school of permissive English, has now all but abandoned any effort to distinguish between good and bad English.” Dwight Macdonald, in a famous New Yorker review, urged writers and readers to keep using the Second in order to avoid the corruption of the Third. Many did.

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. According to the AP Stylebook, “If there is no listing in either this book or Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the backup dictionary is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published by Merriam-Webster Inc.”

And, editors being conservative, it’s likely that Webster’s New World will remain forever the chosen dictionary—as long as it doesn’t disappear, grin and all.

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