While suffering — though definitely not in silence — from some nasty bug that has laid me low for three days now and shows few signs of abating, I have at least had a chance to rest and read. One of the most interesting pieces I got to spend time on is this marvelous Slate piece about the creation of the 4th edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary — the OED of American English.
Merriam-Webster have caught up with the times:
More than half a century after it was published, the company’s landmark book—Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, known in lexicographic circles as Webster’s Third, W3, the Unabridged, or the Third—is getting an overhaul. The Third is a behemoth—4 inches thick, 13½ pounds, 2,700 pages—that falls like a crashing wave when opened. A fourth edition, by contrast, might never exist as a physical object. This latest revision, a project Merriam-Webster hopes will secure its dominance in the tenuous business of commercial lexicography if not ensure its future survival, is happening entirely online.
The article includes some fascinating snippets about the history of dictionary-making in America, and provides insights into how the old and the new are melding in the current production. For example:
The New Words file contains about 1,700 nominees for word-dom. But it isn’t the sum and substance of the Unabridged revision. Merriam plans to re-examine and when necessary—and it’s usually necessary—rewrite each of more than 476,000 entries from the most recent printing of the Third, in 2002, when the original 1961 edition, plus its seven addenda, was first made available online.
An incredible task and not without its risks from a business perspective. After all, with no physical book to sell, the potential revenue streams are more difficult to assess:
On its face, this might sound like a terrible plan. Merriam has tasked the majority of its employees with rewriting a book that likely won’t generate revenue the old-fashioned way, through hardcover sales. The project involves the subscription-only Unabridged site, not Merriam’s free online dictionary, which is based on its smaller desktop book, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So there’s no guarantee it will find enough customers willing to pay $29.95 a year to turn a profit. Plus, the work could take decades to complete. By the time the Third gets close to being a Fourth, it’s not clear how people will use a dictionary, or even what a dictionary will be.
This is a wonderful piece for anyone interested in the future of vocabulary and the use of dictionaries. Thoroughly recommended.