Words Matter

Our Dictionary Through Time

Webster's legendary editions - from 1828 through today


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Featuring: Peter Sokolowski

TRANSCRIPT


Welcome to ask the editor, I'm Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster.


Just as the English language changes, so does the dictionary, from edition to edition. Noah Webster's 1828 American dictionary of the English Language helped establish American English spelling and set a high standard for clear and concise definitions.


But at $20, a lot of money back then, it was a luxury item.


After Webster died the Merriam brothers, George and Charles, who were printers and booksellers, took over the production of new editions. They were good businessmen. Their first edition cost only $6.


By 1864, the number of entries in what was by then called The Unabridged Dictionary, had more than doubled to 180,000. This edition also presented the very best research up to that time in word histories called etymologies, and it was the first to have illustrations throughout. Everything about this book set the modern standard for a scholarly and comprehensive dictionary. Including the fact that it was made by a large team of editors just as we work today.


Over time the dictionary kept getting bigger and bigger. In 1890, it got a new name, the International. The 1934 edition called Webster's Second New International had 600,000 entries and is the largest single volume dictionary in the history of the English language.


Webster's Third in 1961 became famous, or infamous, for definitions written in single phrases, rather than long paragraphs, and especially, for its strict reliance on printed evidence for every definition, making it very descriptive of actual usage. It was and still is a landmark of this kind of research. Research with the ultimate goal of telling the truth about how we use words.


We now use words in ways, and in places that didn't exist in 1828. Print is moving online and the dictionary has followed.


Our Unabridged dictionary continues to grow online today. There are updated entries, many new words, added quotations, and usage guidance, in addition to video, audio and articles for language lovers at the redesigned Merriam-WebsterUnabridged.com.


For more Ask the Editor videos, visit merriam-webster.com.

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