Word Matters Podcast

The Brothers Merriam: An Introduction

Word Matters, Episode 54

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Last week we told you about our irascible forefather Noah Webster. But where does the "Merriam" factor in? Here's the story of George and Charles Merriam, the brothers who took Webster's work and brought it to the world stage.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: The Brothers Merriam. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

On our previous episode, we told you the story of the man who started it all, Noah Webster. Today, we'll introduce you to his less famous accomplices, George and Charles Merriam. This pair of brothers transformed Noah's dictionary from a prestige purchase accessible only to the wealthy to a regular household necessity. Here's part two of my conversation with our in-house Merriam-Webster expert, Peter Sokolowski.

Peter Sokolowski: So this brings the Merriams into the story. They were printers. They had a printing shop in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Emily Brewster: Springfield, Massachusetts.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Which is where Merriam-Webster, our company, has been ever since.

Peter Sokolowski: Ever since. So they opened their shop in 1831. So they were exactly contemporary with Webster's prime years. Webster's Dictionary comes out in 1828, the Merriams were certainly aware of it. And there is an amazing little story here, because Joseph Adams, who was the bookseller in Amherst, who had the initial rights to sell the unbound copies of Webster's Dictionary... And by the way, that was also quite typical. You would buy a book and then order the binding special, because often the binding was really the most expensive part. So if you were wealthy, you would ask for a very fancy leather binding, or you might buy the book without a binding, and do it yourself, or you might ask for cloth binding. It's not exactly the way we think of book publishing today.

Emily Brewster: But that's so interesting. It makes me think of the print to order system that we newly have access to so broadly.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. Oh, yeah. And actually it was in place well into the Merriam-Webster tradition that was a part of book publishing for a lot longer than most people think. But anyway, this man Adams found himself sort of stuck with all these copies, and-

Emily Brewster: How did he come to have them?

Peter Sokolowski: Well, this is a little bit of deduction. I'm not sure. I assume they were neighbors in Amherst, which was a tiny village at the time, and Webster, among other things, co-founded Amherst College with Emily Dickinson's grandfather, another neighbor. The Webster home in Amherst is no longer standing, but the Emily Dickinson's home is, and they were nearby. They were not a hundred yards apart. So I assumed that the bookseller in Amherst, Adams, had over the 20 years that Webster lived there, they must have become friendly, as they were friends with the Dickinson family. So that man, because he was a bookseller, he was known to the family, and I assume the widow allowed the rights to these books to sell them to this bookseller. And by the way, that makes the 1844 copy of Webster's Dictionary a very rare thing, because it's the only Webster's Dictionary that was in a sense neither Webster nor Merriam. It was after Webster's death and before the Merriam's took over. So there are some copies from 1844 that are stamped with the JCS Adams imprint on the front. So first of all, they're rare. And second of all, that happened to be the copy, the very edition, that was owned and used by Emily Dickinson herself. So you can consult a digitized version of this at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, which owns that copy of that dictionary. So a lot of people have stars in their eyes and say, "I have an old dictionary. Is it worth a million dollars?" And the sad fact is we printed a lot of them, so they're not intrinsically valuable usually, but that particular edition I bet would be worth quite a lot of money if you have a good copy of the Adams edition. But anyway, what happened was Adams was known to have trouble selling this book, and it was also known that he was traveling. And so a couple of years ago, one of the most prominent dictionary collectors in America, a woman named Madeline Kripke, had me over and John Morse, the now retired president of Merriam-Webster. We went to her place in New York City, and her place was just a museum of dictionaries. The entire apartment is so packed with wonderful ephemera, but also old dictionaries, rare dictionary. One of the things that she had acquired through an auction was the private papers of Homer Merriam. So there were three brothers in fact. There was George Merriam, Charles Merriam, and Homer Merriam. Homer joined a little bit later, which is why his name isn't usually associated with the company, which was called-

Emily Brewster: Right. The G & C Merriam Company.

Peter Sokolowski: The G & C Merriam Company. If you have an older copy of a Merriam-Webster dictionary, on the spine it says G & C Merriam, George and Charles Merriam. Anyway, she bought his archive, and among the papers was a letter from George to Charles Merriam dated March 28, 1844. So Webster died in 1843, and this letter says, "I have tried to get Adams to stop at Springfield and talk over the Ps and Qs about the restrictions on Webster with you and Mr. Chapman. His opinion would be worth a good deal, but Adams wants to get home before Sunday, and I fear won't stop unless this long drizzling rain is the means of retarding him ere he gets there. He goes for comfort. Do sift the thing thoroughly. If he does stop, the estate," underlined in his manuscript, "the estate is being settled, and now is the time for bargaining. Half that book would probably be worth permanently more than anything we have or ever shall have else." Now, this is an amazing document, this letter. I call it the aha letter, because it's the first time that the names Merriam and Webster were essentially mixed. It clearly shows that George Marian said, "We are printers. We are booksellers. We can sell this book." And Mr. Adams was traveling by coach, horse and carriage, from New York back to Amherst. So there was this natural stop in Springfield, and it seems that that stop did happen, and a bargain was struck. And in fact, the Merriams took over first the sale of the dictionary, and then the printing of the dictionary, and that's where it gets interesting, because Webster's dictionary had up to that point been both very expensive, but also had been a two volume dictionary. I think the Merriams can be credited with one big idea, which is, "Let's make the dictionary a big fat book, make it one single volume." Which is the way we all think of dictionaries today, but that wasn't the way you would naturally have thought of a dictionary at that time.

Emily Brewster: This idea of a dictionary being portable and affordable.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: That's the phrase I like to use, because until the digital age, that has been a very powerful driving force in lexicography is the necessity of keeping a dictionary portable and affordable.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it has to be.

Emily Brewster: And the Merriams really started that.

Peter Sokolowski: It was their whole philosophy. Absolutely. And because they were printers, they could recognize that once they sold through a few more copies of the existing printing, they re-typeset the book. They did make some little adjustments, even though they were printers, there are letters from the Merriams that show that they were paying attention to language and saying, "We must add this word or that word." They weren't lexicographers per se, but they were not too far removed from that kind of work. And at that time, it probably kind of blended for them, but they've definitely added a few things, but for the most part their re-typesetting of the dictionary made it into much smaller print, into three columns, and stuck it all in one volume for reasons of cost, to save money. And also this tradition of cramming print on the page of dictionaries really started with them, and smaller print, fewer pages total. Then they came up with once they bound it, they realized that the traditional way of seeing this product, Webster's Dictionary, which was by this time a famous book and 15 years old, was in two volumes. So they did something that, as far as I know, no one else had ever done before, which is they used a word that had never been used regarding dictionaries. And they stamped that word on the spine of their copy of Webster's Dictionary, which had the same title, it was still called an American Dictionary of the English Language. They were completely marketing it as Webster's Dictionary, but on the spine it said, "Unabridged." And that is the word that we use today to identify that kind of dictionary and that specific dictionary for our company, that is to say the biggest one, whatever is the biggest one at the moment.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: But as far as I know, the scholar Jack Lynch found out that it was 1700 when the word abridged was first used to refer to a dictionary, it was a bilingual French English dictionary. And then in this 1847 printing of the Webster's Dictionary by the Merriams, they used the word unabridged on the spine. Not, by the way, on the title page. It was not the title of the book. It was just this sort of informal way to identify, I think, to assure the consumer that this is the whole book. This is A to Z, it's not two volumes anymore. It's now one volume. But the biggest thing they did was reduce the price. It became $6 in 1847.

Emily Brewster: I want to see the letter that comes up with the word unabridged.

Peter Sokolowski: There may be-

Emily Brewster: I want to know who did it.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. It's A clever little bit of marketing. And I think that's an important point too about the Merriams, which is a point that our retired boss, John Morse, makes, which is that they did something before this word really existed, which was branding. They believed in Webster, even though Webster himself was dead, they believed in promoting Webster as maybe a mythical figure, but certainly as the sort of embodiment of good, solid, serious scholarship about language.

Emily Brewster: They recognized his authority as a lexicographer. They recognized his skill as a lexicographer. The word Webster was already associated with dictionaries, but they really solidified that. They also brought in people who had connections to Noah Webster.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: Chauncey Goodrich was Webster's son-in-law.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. Yeah. Webster's son-in-law was a professor at Yale, which was a small faculty at that time. I mean, Yale's faculty was 30, 40 people. It was very small. But professor of rhetoric, so really involved in language. And in Webster's own lifetime, he recognized their affinities, and also really required his help, because it was Chauncey Goodrich who oversaw the abridgment, speaking of that word, and the reduction of Webster's big dictionary to a smaller one during Webster's lifetime.

Emily Brewster: Like we said, he published a number of different books, and sometimes he was cutting down his own dictionary into a smaller form, and sometimes he was doing a new edition, et Cetera.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. Chauncey Goodrich was the editor not only to that sort of abridgment of the bigger book, but then the new edition of that bigger book published by the Merriams. And that's when the Merriams stopped being printers and started being publishers. In fact, they sold off their printing press, that part of their business, because they recognize that managing the dictionary became their full-time occupation, and that's publishing not printing.

Emily Brewster: And that is what that aha letter was saying.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: This book is going to be... This is our thing.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. And they were right, and they gave up ultimately things like school books, and Bibles, and law books, the things that they were printing, and they devoted all their energy to the dictionary. And that 1847 printing at $6 was the game changer. It became instead of a luxury item, much more of a household item. $6 was probably still a lot of money in 1847, but they basically had a philosophy that is a very American sales philosophy, which is profit by volume, lower the price, increase the volume, make a lot of copies. That spirit led them to another abridgment, which they called the Collegiate Dictionary, and that comes out in 1898 and only costs $3.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with more of the story of the Merriam brothers. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea,. do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org. And along the way there's another innovation that I think we should mention, because this period of the 1840s, and '50s, and '60s, which was really a period of great change in American publishing. And one of the changes was that there was competition, and this man Joseph Worcester, who had been, by the way, employed by Chauncey Goodrich to help with the abridgment of Webster's big dictionary years earlier in 1830s. And he in Boston had been working on his own dictionary, and it came out, and it was really good, and it was very successful, and it was in fact endorsed by Harvard. And so you kind of had at this time the Yale dictionary and the Harvard dictionary, and Worcester was a much younger man, and so Webster dies in '43, Worcester continued to make dictionaries. In fact, made a really big addition, kind of his equivalent to the unabridged dictionary, the big one, which comes out in 1860. But he made a mistake in marketing, because he announced in the trade press he said, "My big dictionary is coming out. It'll be out at the end of the year, and it'll be illustrated with engravings. It'll have stamps and engravings to show pictures of animals, and of structures, and plants, and the kinds of things that we associate with dictionary images." And the Merriam's saw that advertisement and said, "Well, we can't let this guy be the first, and so they scrambled. They wanted to get the little engravings, the images that we associate with dictionaries today.

Emily Brewster: The charming line drawn-

Peter Sokolowski: Little line drawings that are then cut into copper plates. And they sent to England to some printing companies that made encyclopedias and dictionaries, and they bought a bunch of them, and they made some up themselves, and they recognized that re-typesetting a book was such a laborious affair that they didn't have time. So they simply made 20 or 30 pages of just images, most of them just maybe an inch or an inch and a half tall of all the different kinds of flowers, all the different kinds of fish, all the different kinds of mammals, all different kinds of sailboats, that kind of thing all grouped together. And they stuck them at the front of the book, and they put a new cover on the book, and they called it a Webster's Illustrated Dictionary. And they went to market before the other guy, they beat Worcester by a matter of months.

Emily Brewster: It's a pretty dirty trick, right?

Peter Sokolowski: It's a dirty trick.

Emily Brewster: It's a dirty trick, And it's one of the battles in what came to be known as The Dictionary Wars.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Which I think we could do a fuller treatment of another time.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, yeah we'll do... but this competition ended up being kind of a Dictionary War. There was an arms race of dictionaries at this time, and this is one of the great battles, which is the Merriams can say that they were the first to have an illustrated dictionary. So 1859, you get this illustrated Webster's from the Merriams. 1860, you get the big Worcester dictionary, which was a very important dictionary for a lot of reasons. One reason is it was so much fresher, so much newer than Webster's work, which at this point is now getting old. And it has to be said, there were elements of Webster's work that were in need of revision, notably his etymologies. And when the Merriams saw this new competitor, this new dictionary on the market, they recognized we have to do something about the old content of this dictionary. And that was a little bit new. Publishers and printers, probably like many people, thought that the English language was a fixed thing, and once you had a good dictionary, it would last forever. And what they recognized with this I think was a very modern thing, which is we've got to keep up with the language, and that's when they reconnected with Chauncey Goodrich, and asked him to make an entirely new edition of Webster's to revise, not just add new words, but to revise every definition, every etymology to really take the book apart and put it back together again. And that was a huge project.

Emily Brewster: Yes. That's a story all in itself.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: But I think that gets us the connection in our previous episode, the story of where we got the Webster part of our name, and the story of the Merriams.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, because they basically said, "If we are going to be in the business of selling dictionaries, we have to be in the business of making dictionaries." That is to say the actual labor of research and editing, and it's not just a question of marketing, which they were good at. They recognized they also had to be good or hire good scholars to keep the tradition going. Without revision, dictionaries die. It's an important point. Most dictionaries do die. They go away. I mean, there are so many, especially in the early modern period through the 19th century, that have just vanished. And this still happens sadly because of the vagaries of the business. But they recognized if we want to keep in this business, if we want to be the best, we have to spare no expense. And it was very expensive to do what they did the way that they did it. And it was so radical that Webster's own son, William Webster, who was part of the editorial team, kind of an advisor, but not really a scholar. He himself never went to college, and he contributed in minor ways, but he wrote them a letter basically saying, "I see what you're doing with this, and you have to take the name off the book. It's no longer my father's book." And what you realize is at that time, he probably thought of the dictionary more like we think of a novel, it was the work of an individual and a work of creative inspiration rather than the work of accumulated scholarship.

Emily Brewster: I think he would have been at odds with his father in that. I don't think his father would have made that same call, but anyway, there's so much more to say about this.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, that's why we have the two names, Merriam and Webster. And that big revision that they were working on was the addition of 1864, became a very famous edition and the basis of the company well into the 20th century.

Emily Brewster: Word Matters will be taking a brief summer vacation. We'll be back with more episodes in a couple of weeks. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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