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[ noun es -ey es -ey , e- sey verb e- sey ]

  • a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.

a picture essay.

  • an effort to perform or accomplish something; attempt.
  • Philately. a design for a proposed stamp differing in any way from the design of the stamp as issued.
  • Obsolete. a tentative effort; trial; assay.

verb (used with object)

  • to try; attempt.
  • to put to the test; make trial of.
  • a short literary composition dealing with a subject analytically or speculatively
  • an attempt or endeavour; effort
  • a test or trial
  • to attempt or endeavour; try
  • to test or try out
  • A short piece of writing on one subject, usually presenting the author's own views. Michel de Montaigne , Francis Bacon (see also Bacon ), and Ralph Waldo Emerson are celebrated for their essays.

Discover More

Other words from.

  • es·sayer noun
  • prees·say verb (used without object)
  • unes·sayed adjective
  • well-es·sayed adjective

Word History and Origins

Origin of essay 1

Example Sentences

As several of my colleagues commented, the result is good enough that it could pass for an essay written by a first-year undergraduate, and even get a pretty decent grade.

GPT-3 also raises concerns about the future of essay writing in the education system.

This little essay helps focus on self-knowledge in what you’re best at, and how you should prioritize your time.

As Steven Feldstein argues in the opening essay, technonationalism plays a part in the strengthening of other autocracies too.

He’s written a collection of essays on civil engineering life titled Bridginess, and to this day he and Lauren go on “bridge dates,” where they enjoy a meal and admire the view of a nearby span.

I think a certain kind of compelling essay has a piece of that.

The current attack on the Jews,” he wrote in a 1937 essay, “targets not just this people of 15 million but mankind as such.

The impulse to interpret seems to me what makes personal essay writing compelling.

To be honest, I think a lot of good essay writing comes out of that.

Someone recently sent me an old Joan Didion essay on self-respect that appeared in Vogue.

There is more of the uplifted forefinger and the reiterated point than I should have allowed myself in an essay.

Consequently he was able to turn in a clear essay upon the subject, which, upon examination, the king found to be free from error.

It is no part of the present essay to attempt to detail the particulars of a code of social legislation.

But angels and ministers of grace defend us from ministers of religion who essay art criticism!

It is fit that the imagination, which is free to go through all things, should essay such excursions.

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Meaning of essay in English

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  • I want to finish off this essay before I go to bed .
  • His essay was full of spelling errors .
  • Have you given that essay in yet ?
  • Have you handed in your history essay yet ?
  • I'd like to discuss the first point in your essay.
  • boilerplate
  • composition
  • dissertation
  • essay question
  • peer review
  • go after someone
  • go all out idiom
  • go down swinging/fighting idiom
  • go for it idiom
  • go for someone
  • shoot the works idiom
  • smarten (someone/something) up
  • smarten up your act idiom
  • square the circle idiom
  • step on the gas idiom

essay | American Dictionary

Examples of essay, collocations with essay.

These are words often used in combination with essay .

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Translations of essay

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essay definition merriam webster

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Definition of essay noun from the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary

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How to Write a Definition Essay (Plus Topics You Can Use and a Sample Essay)

Tonya Thompson

Beginning an academic program can be an overwhelming prospect, particularly if you are uncomfortable with writing academic essays. Most programs will require multiple writing assignments on a weekly basis, with different types of essays being assigned based on the class content and professor's preferences. You'll need to be able to research a topic, create an essay outline based on that research, and write the essay using your research and outline as your guides.

Some essay assignments are a lot easier than others and the definition essay is one such type. A definition essay is exactly what it sounds like it should be: An essay you write to provide your reader with the definition of a word. However, it's more in-depth than simply writing a dictionary definition. You'll need to be able to put the definition in your own words, as well as provide examples of how that word is used in various contexts. You'll also need to be able to discuss the connotation and denotation of the word, which are terms we will clarify below.

So, let's look over some common questions academic writers have about a definition essay and clarify them.

A definition essay goes beyond simply stating a word's dictionary definition.

What is the typical length of a definition essay?

Since the purpose of a definition essay is generally limited to defining one word, the length of the essay should be around 1 to 2 pages, if double-spaced. Within these paragraphs, you will cover various aspects of the definition, including how the word can be interpreted in multiple contexts and some examples of the word in a sentence.

What is included in a definition essay?

Although a definition essay is meant to define a word, you can't just copy the dictionary definition and be done with it. For a definition essay, you'll need to use your own words to define the term, including its connotation and denotation. Putting the definition in your own words makes your definition essay more interesting to your reader, who could just look the word up in the dictionary if all they're interested in is a dictionary definition.

Dictionaries also don't include multiple examples of the word used in context, so adding this element to your definition essay makes it more interested for your reader, allowing them to learn something they might not otherwise learn.

What is the difference between connotation and denotation?

Obviously, in order to include these within your definition essay, you need to understand the difference between the two. Below, we cover the definitions of connotation and denotation, as well as offer some examples of how this terminology applies to vocabulary words.


According to Merriam-Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/connotation), the connotation of a word is:

1a. something suggested or implied by a word or thing; 1b. the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes

According to Merriam-Webster , the denotation of a word is:

1a. A direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea

Connotation vs. denotation

So, when looking at the difference between the two, you have to consider how the English language contains words that have both a literal and implied meaning. For example, when we look at the word "home," we can consider its literal definition (or denotation), which is a building that is someone's (or a family's) living space.

However, when we consider its metaphorical meaning, we think of "home" as a place of security and comfort, such as "this place feels like home." In this sense, we are using the word's connotation instead of its denotation, or literal meaning.

How should I outline my definition essay?

Even though your definition essay will be around a page or two, at most, in length, you'll still need to follow a typical essay outline when writing it. A typical essay outline includes the introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Thus, your definition essay outline might look something like this:

  • Mention the purpose of the essay (which is to define the term)
  • A thesis statement that covers both the connotation and denotation of the term (in your own words)
  • The origin of the term and other etymological information the reader might find interesting
  • The denotation of the term (in your own words)
  • Offer examples
  • The connotation of the term (in your own words)
  • A brief restatement of the definition of the term
  • Additional information about the term your reader would find interesting

How To Write a Concluding Paragraph

What are some possible definition essay topics?

If you're given the opportunity to determine your own topic for the definition essay assignment, it's a good idea to pick a term that you are familiar with, can define in your own words, and can discuss at length. Here are some ideas:

  • How do you define world peace?
  • What is your definition of family?
  • What does the word "ego" mean to you?
  • What is social media and how is it best defined?
  • Define nanotechnology
  • What is depression?
  • What is your definition of a hero?
  • How would you define a successful career?
  • What is a team player and how would you define one?
  • Define Capitalism and what it means to you.

Sample definition essay

Below is a sample definition essay for the word "love". Since many terms have several possible definitions and connotations, for a more interesting definition essay, try to choose a word that is not easily defined.

Sample Essay

The word "love" is used in various contexts and can mean different things to different people. There are also different types of love that are referred to in Ancient Greek writing that span everything from unconditional love to obsessive love. This essay will take a look at the meaning of the word—both its denotation and connotation—and explore some examples of how the word might be used in context.

With Germanic origins, the word "love" comes from the Old English "lufu." The root is a mix of Indo-European words, including the Sanskrit word "lubhyati," which means "desires," the Latin word "libet," which means "it is pleasing," and the Latin word "libido," which means "desire."

Merriam-Webster online offers several definitions of the word. Love can be a strong affection for another person based on familial or sexual ties. It can also be an attachment or devotion to an object or person. Thus, the denotation of the word "love" is an extreme affection or attachment to another based on shared history, family connection, or intimacy. In this sense, one might say: "I love my wife and want what's best for her."

The word "love" could hold various connotations for someone, depending on their experience with the emotion. For some, "love" might be a goal in a relationship or a feeling that is intensely intimate and important. For others, "love" could be something to avoid to keep from getting hurt or opening one's self up to potential betrayal. Beyond these associations, the word "love" can also be used when referring to an object or activity that one values or enjoys. For example, "I love going on walks by the beach" or "I love the architecture on this building" are ways the word "love" could be used in a sentence to show an affinity for an activity or object.

The Ancient Greeks believed that there were different types of love and labeled them based on the various emotions that one might feel toward another. For them, love was divided into: Agape (unconditional love), Eros (romantic love), Philia (affectionate love), Philautia (self-love), Storge (familiar love), Pragma (enduring love), Ludus (playful love), and Mania (obsessive love).

Ultimately, the word "love" can mean different things depending on context and the speaker's association with the word. While its most common definition refers to a close tie and intimacy with another person, it can also be used in reference to an affinity for an object or activity. In this situation, it's often used as synonymous with the words "like" or "enjoy" instead of referring to a close, intimate connection or feeling for another person.

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How to Cite a Dictionary Website

Last Updated: September 15, 2021

This article was co-authored by wikiHow staff writer, Jennifer Mueller, JD . Jennifer Mueller is a wikiHow Content Creator. She specializes in reviewing, fact-checking, and evaluating wikiHow's content to ensure thoroughness and accuracy. Jennifer holds a JD from Indiana University Maurer School of Law in 2006. This article has been viewed 25,647 times.

When writing a research paper, you may need to quote or paraphrase the dictionary definition of a word. If you use an online dictionary, you can't just cite the print dictionary. A proper citation lets your readers go directly to the source you used. The basic information included in a citation to a dictionary website is the same regardless of the citation style you use. However, the format differs depending on whether you're using the Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), or Chicago citation style.

Step 1 Type the title of the entry first.

  • Example: "Filibuster."

Step 2 Provide the title of the dictionary.

  • Example: "Filibuster." Merriam-Webster's Learners Dictionary,

Step 3 List the date the entry was published or updated.

  • Example: "Filibuster." Merriam-Webster's Learners Dictionary, 16 July 2018,
  • If there is no date appears on the web page for the entry, simply leave this information out of the citation. Do not use the copyright date for the website.

Step 4 [4]...

  • Example: "Filibuster." Merriam-Webster's Learners Dictionary, 16 July 2018, Merriam-Webster . www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/filibuster.

Step 5 Close your citation with the date you accessed the page.

  • Example: "Filibuster." Merriam-Webster's Learners Dictionary, 16 July 2018, Merriam-Webster . www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/filibuster. Accessed 27 July 2018.

Step 6 Use the title of the entry in your in-text citation.

  • Example: ("Filibuster").

Step 1 Start your reference list citation with the title of the entry.

  • Example: Filibuster.

Step 2 Provide the year of publication in parentheses.

  • Example: Filibuster. (2018).

Step 3 Include the name of the dictionary and edition, if given.

  • Example: Filibuster. (2018). In Merriam-Webster's learners dictionary .
  • If the dictionary has a named editor, list that name before the name of the dictionary. For example: Filibuster. (2018). In I. M. Wordsmith (Ed.), Merriam-Webster's learners dictionary .

Step 4 Close with the direct URL for the entry.

  • Example: Filibuster. (2018). In Merriam-Webster's learners dictionary . Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/filibuster

Step 5 Use the title of the entry and year for in-text citations.

  • Example: ("Filibuster," 2018).

Step 1 Provide the name of the dictionary and title of the entry.

  • Example: Merriam-Webster's Learners Dictionary , s.v. "Filibuster,"

Step 2 List the date you accessed the entry.

  • Example: Merriam-Webster's Learners Dictionary , s.v. "Filibuster," accessed July 27, 2018,

Step 3 Copy the direct URL for the entry.

  • Example: Merriam-Webster's Learners Dictionary , s.v. "Filibuster," accessed July 27, 2018, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/filibuster.

Step 4 Use the same format for footnotes in-text.

  • The abbreviation "s.v." also indicates to your readers that the source consists of alphabetical entries. Even if you were using a print dictionary, you wouldn't include the page number where the word appears. Rather, readers would simply look up the word.
  • Well-known dictionaries are typically only cited in footnotes, not in the bibliography. When in doubt, go ahead and include the bibliography entry – especially for online dictionaries.

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  • ↑ http://columbiacollege-ca.libguides.com/mla/encyclopedias
  • ↑ https://www.lib.sfu.ca/help/cite-write/citation-style-guides/chicago/encyclopedias-dictionaries

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How to Cite a Dictionary Meaning in MLA

Last Updated: September 15, 2021 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Christopher Taylor, PhD . Christopher Taylor is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Austin Community College in Texas. He received his PhD in English Literature and Medieval Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. There are 7 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 80,914 times.

Citing a dictionary definition is a little different than referencing an authored book, but it’s easy to get the hang of. An MLA citation shows the reader exactly where to find the source you accessed, so you’ll need to provide specific information about the entry. Include an in-text citation in parentheses right after the sentence that referenced the term. On your works cited page, list the term, the dictionary's title, its edition, its date of publication, and the page number. For an online dictionary, include the URL and the date you accessed the site.

Making a Parenthetical Citation

Step 1 Add an in-text citation to the end of the sentence that referenced the term.

  • A basic parenthetical citation would be: (“Onomatopoeia”). Instead of placing the period after sentence, add it after the citation, like this: Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates or suggests the sound it describes (“Onomatopoeia”).

Step 2 Include the definition number for words with multiple entries.

  • For example, your in-text citation would look like this: (“Turn,” def. V. 2a). Note the “V.” stands for verb; use “Adj.” for adjectives and “N.” for nouns.
  • Write the part of speech and definition number as it appears in the dictionary. A dictionary might organize entries with numbers and letters (such as 1a) or with numbers alone (such as 1.2).
  • If the word has multiple entries but only a single part of speech, just include the entry number: (“Wonderful,” def. 2).

Step 3 Put the dictionary’s title in brackets if you’ve included multiple entries.

  • An example would be: (“Emoticon,” [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary]).
  • Suppose your paper references the definition of “Emoticon” in both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary . If your in-text citations were just (“Emoticon”) or (“Emoticon,” N.), the reader wouldn’t know which dictionary you were referencing.

Citing a Print Dictionary

Step 1 Begin with the term you’ve defined in quotation marks.

  • If you specified the part of speech and definition number, include them in your works cited entry: “Content,” def. N. 1c. [5] X Research source
  • Since there’s no known author, use the first letter of the term when you alphabetize your works cited page. For instance, you’d list “Content” after an entry authored by “Butler, J.” and before one authored by “Darwin, C.”

Step 2 Add the name of the dictionary in italics.

  • At this point, your entry would look like this: “Content,” def. N. 1c. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary ,

Step 3 Write the edition if you’re citing a subsequent edition.

  • Now your entry would read: “Content,” def. N. 1c. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary , 11th ed.,

Step 4 Include the publication date.

  • Add the date like this: “Content,” def. N. 1c. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary , 11th ed., 2003,

Step 5 Put the page number at the end of the citation.

  • Your finished entry would read: “Content,” def. N. 1c. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary , 11th ed., 2003, p. 269.
  • If your definition happens to appear on 2 pages, write “pp. 269-270.”

Citing an Online Dictionary

Step 1 Start with the term and the name of the online dictionary.

  • The first part works cited entry for an online dictionary looks the same as a citation for printed source: “Content,” def. N. 1.1. Oxford English Dictionary ,

Step 2 Use the copyright date the bottom of the website page.

  • Your entry at this point would read: “Content,” def. N. 1.1. Oxford English Dictionary , 2018,

Step 3 Don’t include “https” when you write the URL.

  • Add the URL like this: “Content,” def. N. 1.1. Oxford English Dictionary , 2018, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/content.

Step 4 Include the date you accessed the website.

  • Your completed entry would read: “Content,” def. N. 1.1. Oxford English Dictionary , 2018, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/content. Accessed 23 September 2018.

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  • Learn more about MLA style at https://style.mla.org . Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0

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Cite the WHO in APA

  • ↑ https://style.mla.org/term-with-numbered-definitions/
  • ↑ https://style.mla.org/distinguishing-dictionary-entries/
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/mla_style/mla_formatting_and_style_guide/mla_works_cited_page_books.html
  • ↑ https://style.mla.org/when-citing-a-print-dictionary-in-mla-style-do-i-include-a-page-number/
  • ↑ https://www.merriam-webster.com/help/citing-the-dictionary
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/mla_style/mla_formatting_and_style_guide/mla_works_cited_electronic_sources.html
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/mla_style/mla_formatting_and_style_guide/mla_formatting_and_style_guide.html?_ga=2.19623804.558179429.1522454400-1709346682.1522454400

About This Article

Christopher Taylor, PhD

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The Draconian Dictionary Is Back

Since the 1960s, the reference book has cataloged how people actually use language, not how they should. That might be changing. An Object Lesson .

The curator of the museum at Samuel Johnson's house holds a copy of his first dictionary

In 1961, what newly published book was denounced as “subversive and intolerably offensive”? Was it the new American edition of Tropic of Cancer , Henry Miller’s sexually explicit autobiographical novel? Nope. Although that book was called filthy, rotten, repulsive, and “an affront to human decency,” the correct answer is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary .

It might be hard to understand how a dictionary could have been deemed “subversive.” Indeed, the source of the outrage—the inclusion of slang and nonstandard terms such as the word ain’t —seems unobjectionable today. In 2011, the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg wrote of the kerfuffle in The New York Times , “It’s a safe bet that no new dictionary will ever incite a similar uproar, whatever it contains. The dictionary simply doesn’t have the symbolic importance it did a half-century ago.”

That symbolic importance is summed up in the phrase Nunberg uses: “ t he dictionary,” a singular reference book for language. The idea of such a thing is fiction: Ever since the early days of dictionary making in England 400 years ago, there have been competing dictionaries—never a sole, eternal authority. “The dictionary” isn’t a real thing so much as a symbol for the idea of proper English.

This symbol has been particularly powerful in the United States. That may be because print dictionaries have embodied certain ideas about democracy and capitalism that seem especially American—specifically, the notion that “good” English can be packaged and sold, becoming accessible to anyone willing to work hard enough to learn it.

Massive social changes in the 1960s accompanied the appearance of Webster’s Third , and a new era arose for dictionaries: one in which describing how people use language became more important than showing them how to do so properly. But that era might finally be coming to an end, thanks to the internet, the decline of print dictionaries, and the political consequences of an anything-goes approach to language.

The first English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall , published in 1604. In it, he announces that he is not writing for scholars or experts, but for “ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskillful persons”—that is, those who had traditionally been deprived of educational opportunities. Cawdrey’s book was, in a way, a self-help book as much as a reference book. Because girls rarely had the opportunity to attend school and were not admitted to British universities, women would have relied on Cawdrey to help them to (in his words) “more easily and better understand many hard English wordes.” It’s unclear if Cawdrey was truly interested in female empowerment, or if he simply saw an opportunity for financial gain in women’s predicament. Still, the fact that his book was marketed to them is notable, because this was the era when Britain’s literary glass ceiling was broken: Elizabeth Cary, Margaret Cavendish, and Aphra Behn weren’t just writing private letters to friends or scribbling in secret; they were professional authors selling published works.

In 1755, Samuel Johnson, a bookseller’s son from Lichfield, published what is still arguably the greatest achievement by any English-language lexicographer, A Dictionary of the English Language . The two-volume book brought him success and widespread acclaim. In compiling his opus, Johnson didn’t just improve his own status, he helped others along, too. Among the beneficiaries of his accomplishment were Johnson’s fellow provincials. Although Johnson had needed to leave the University of Oxford after only one year due to a lack of financial means, throughout England there were other strivers with even less education. Many of them turned to dictionaries to help them overcome their limited vocabularies and poor spelling.

In America, dictionaries had a similarly leveling effect. Noah Webster was an eccentric and zealous patriot who saw a uniquely American English language as a way to turn former English subjects into American citizens. In the late-18th century, Webster began producing dictionaries and spellers. In 1828, he published his masterwork, An American Dictionary of the English Language . Webster’s dictionary didn’t just define English words for people who already had good facility with reading and writing, like writers and teachers and ministers. His dictionary also helped the sort of people who didn’t come from upper-crust neighborhoods in New York or Boston exchange their native dialects for standard American English. Some enslaved people (most notably Frederick Douglass) were able to get ahold of dictionaries and spellers, which they used, defiantly, to teach themselves to read and write. When immigration exploded later in the century, newcomers used dictionaries partly to better understand the nuances of their adopted language, partly to efface their national origins.

During the uproar over Webster’s Third , this history of dictionaries as a form of self-help literature collided head-on with the societal upheaval of the 1960s. In the quarter-century that had elapsed since the previous edition, new editors at the Merriam-Webster company had set to work assembling a dictionary informed by the study of linguistics, a discipline that took a neutral stance on grammar and usage. Unfortunately, they didn’t reckon with their customers’ emotional attachment to the older, more judgy style of dictionary making.

The standard way of describing these two approaches in lexicography is to call them “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist.” Descriptivist lexicographers, steeped in linguistic theory, eschew value judgements about so-called correct English and instead describe how people are using the language. Prescriptivists, by contrast, inform readers which usage is “right” and which is “wrong.”

At the time, the press responded with knee-jerk revulsion to descriptivism. The New York Times , for example, dubbed Webster’s Third “a disaster.” The New Yorker devoted 24 pages to Dwight Macdonald’s dyspeptic evaluation of the book, which seems excessively long even by then-editor William Shawn’s standards. The Atlantic critic Wilson Follett was also not a fan. His review in the January 1962 issue called the book “a very great calamity.” (The magazine ran a kinder evaluation by Bergen Evans four months later.)

These vitriolic responses came as a shock to the Merriam staff, who were accustomed to thinking of themselves as essentially harmless, like Johnson had. Many American readers, though, didn’t want a nonhierarchical assessment of their language. They wanted to know which usages were “correct,” because being able to rely on a dictionary to tell you how to sound educated and upper class made becoming upper class seem as if it might be possible. That’s why the public responded badly to Webster’s latest: They craved guidance and rules.

Webster’s Third so unnerved critics and customers because the American idea of social mobility is limited, provisional, and full of paradoxes. There’s no such thing as social mobility if everyone can enjoy it. To be allowed to move around within a hierarchy implies that the hierarchy must be left largely intact. But in America, people have generally accepted the idea of inherited upper-class status, while seeing upward social mobility as something that must be earned.

Allowing vulgar words into the lexicon, as many accused Merriam-Webster of doing, signaled to some that the hierarchy was being dismantled. And it was, to an extent: This was the decade that saw the introduction of the birth-control pill, the end of Jim Crow, the publication of The Feminine Mystique , and the Stonewall riots. In a 2001 Harper’s essay about the Webster’s Third controversy, David Foster Wallace called the publication of the dictionary “the Fort Sumter of the contemporary usage wars.” I’d go a step further and say that it might be thought of as an early salvo in the contemporary culture wars writ large. If the book had been published 10 years earlier, it might not have caused a stir at all. People had to be pretty nervous about general societal “permissiveness” to be so rattled by the lack of grammatical fastidiousness in a dictionary.

It’s hard to remember now, but for decades after the publication of Webster’s Third , people still had intense opinions about dictionaries. In the 1990s, an elderly copy editor once told me, with considerable vehemence, that Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries were “garbage.” She would only use Houghton Mifflin’s American Heritage Dictionary , which boasted a usage panel of experts to advise readers about the finer points of English grammar. (David Foster Wallace was invited to join several years after his Harper’s essay; Geoffrey Nunberg, it should be noted, was the panel’s chairman.) I had worked for both dictionaries briefly, and I barely saw any difference between the two. American Heritage ’s usage notes really did very little to alter the overall descriptivist approach of the Houghton Mifflin dictionaries. The difference is that American Heritage tried to acknowledge and assuage the public’s sensitivity about linguistic permissiveness.

As the Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper revealed in her 2017 tell-all, Word by Word: The Secret Lives of Dictionaries , dictionaries still play a role in the culture wars. Members of the conservative fringe, she says, are still willing to flood editors’ inboxes with angry letters demanding, for example, that the definition of marriage be revised to exclude same-sex unions. Still, there’s no way such demands can be met: Stamper and her descriptivist colleagues are obligated to write definitions that reflect how language is actually used, not how the members of the Westboro Baptist Church wish it were used. That’s what descriptivists do: They describe rather than judge. Nowadays, this approach to dictionary making is generally not contested or even really discussed.

That’s not just because the company’s descriptivist approach, now embraced by all mainstream American dictionaries, has triumphed. Dictionaries, as Nunberg pointed out in the Times , are no longer as central to culture. That’s partially because people don’t rely on them so heavily for self-improvement, now that the internet provides an unending banquet of educational opportunities (no matter the accuracy of that feast). Furthermore, the ease with which automated spelling and grammar checkers offer corrections to human errors has downplayed dictionaries’ role as writing references.

But dictionaries haven’t lost status for that reason alone. There’s something about the end of the print format that has lowered customers’ attachment to the dictionary, or to put it more accurately, their dictionary. During the later years of the print era, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage were offering what were really very similar books, but very different brands. When you bought your print dictionary, you were implicitly taking sides. Unless you were investing in multiple dictionaries from a variety of publishers—and really, who was?—you were aligning yourself with your chosen dictionary’s public image. When the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (then published by American Heritage magazine) was released in 1969, the company marketed it to opponents of the counterculture. One advertisement portrayed the typical Merriam-Webster dictionary customer as a hippie, the ultimate incarnation of 1960s permissiveness.

In his 2009 book, Going Nucular , Geoffrey Nunberg observes that we now live in a culture in which there are no clear distinctions between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture. It stands to reason that in a society in which speaking in a recognizably “highbrow” way confers no benefits, dictionaries will likely matter less. But oddly enough, Merriam-Webster is doing a great deal to promote the idea that sounding educated and using standard—if not highbrow—English really does matter. If American Heritage was aggressively branding itself in the 1960s, Merriam-Webster is doing the same now.

The company has a feisty blog and Twitter feed that it uses to criticize linguistic and grammatical choices. Donald Trump and his administration are regular catalysts for social-media clarifications by Merriam-Webster. The company seems bothered when Trump and his associates change the meanings of words for their own convenience, or when they debase the language more generally.

Maybe it’s not the dictionary that has become outmoded today, but descriptivism itself. I’m not implying that Merriam-Webster has or should abandon the philosophy that guides its lexicography, but it seems that the way the company has regained its relevance in the post-print era is by having a strong opinions about how people should use English. It may be that in spite of Webster’s Third’ s noble intentions, language may just be too human a thing to be treated in an entirely detached, scientific way. Indeed, I’m not sure I want to live in a society in which citizens can’t call out government leaders when they start subverting language in distressing ways. When Kellyanne Conway described the Trump administration’s demonstrably false statements as “alternative facts,” Merriam-Webster’s blogger tartly reminded her that a “ fact is generally understood to refer to something with actual existence, or presented as having objective reality.” True descriptivism, I suppose, would have called Conway’s definition an interesting new variant usage. I’m glad they called it what it is—an incorrect and deceitful one.

This post appears courtesy of Object Lessons .

Merriam-Webster Wants to Reinvent the Dictionary for the Digital Age. Should It Bother?

The definition of a dictionary, merriam-webster is revising its most authoritative tome for the digital age. but in an era of twerking and trolling , what should a dictionary look like (and do we even need one).

Merriam-Webster's dictionaries from 1806, 1828, and 1864

Courtesy of © Merriam-Webster Inc.

By the high-gloss, high-tech standards of 21 st -century corporate life, the headquarters of America’s premier dictionary publisher is an unusual place. Merriam-Webster Inc. is housed in a two-story brick building in Springfield, Massachusetts, that, if not for the bas-relief dictionary and company name above the front door, could pass for an old elementary school. There’s a broad central staircase, and dowdy conference rooms, linoleum floors, and creaky wooden doors, even some hospital-green and cafeteria-yellow walls. The decor is a mishmash of stately oak desks from the 1940s and gray cubicles from the 1990s.

Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is a panelist on  Hang Up and Listen and the author of Word Freak and  A Few Seconds of Panic . Follow him on  Twitter .

On the first floor are business offices and company artifacts. A glass case down an echoey hallway contains Noah Webster’s first lexicographic effort, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language , published in 1806, and his 1828 follow-up, An American Dictionary of the English Language , which, with 70,000 entries, rivaled Samuel Johnson’s great British book . The second floor is home to about 40 definers, etymologists, pronouncers, daters, and typists, plus the most comprehensive extant repository of the history of American English: 16 million 3-by-5-inch slips of paper, known as citations, crammed into alphabetized drawers in rows of chest-high, metal filing cabinets. “The essential value of the company is inside those drawers,” says Peter Sokolowski, a Merriam editor. “It’s irreplaceable.” The citation files are supposed to be fireproof. But with no sprinkler system installed—an accidental soaking would cause serious damage—no one wants to find out if they really are.

Merriam brothers

Merriam’s president and publisher, John M. Morse, admits that the company should probably move to a more modern space. But the 75-year-old building was paid off long ago—cost of construction: $200,000—and running a reference publisher in western Massachusetts is a lot cheaper than doing so in Boston or New York. Employees, whose work tends to the monastic, also like the bucolic region, if not struggling downtown Springfield. In any case, it’s fitting that this iconic American brand, created by one of the nation’s first political thinkers and intellectual entrepreneurs, remains loyal to its past. While Noah Webster was a Connecticut man, the company has been in Springfield since brothers George and Charles Merriam acquired the rights to the dictionary after Webster died in 1843.

Now Merriam-Webster is pushing into the future by making an audacious nod to its past. 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 .

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.

But while the Internet has upended a publishing model that dates to Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 A Table Alphabeticall , it also has strengthened the feeling among lexicographers that the public cares deeply about language—and that there is still a place for the dictionary. For Merriam specifically, the potential of digital lexicography, a belief that people crave guidance and trust authority, and its own historical place in American letters have combined to convince it of the wisdom of rolling the dice and redoing the Third .

“Creating a new Unabridged Dictionary gives us the opportunity to revisit the biggest questions of all,” Morse says. “What is it that ought to be said and shown about the words in the dictionary? What should we talk about when we talk about words? The Unabridged provides the platform to present the fullest explication of words and hence the opportunity to say what it is that ought to be said. And the answer shifts from generation to generation.”

That might come off as highfalutin, and possibly self-serving. Merriam isn’t the first dictionary company to update its signature reference work or to go digital-only with it, and the Unabridged isn’t even close to the biggest lexicographic resource out there; Oxford University Press has been issuing quarterly online revisions of its mammoth Oxford English Dictionary since 2000. But while the OED has a handful of lexicographers writing definitions in New York, and the legendary tome is revered for its comprehensive historical approach—the most recent printed edition ran to 20 volumes—it’s ultimately an English-as-in-England work. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged is distinctly American, the seminal sourcebook not only for English as it is written and spoken in the United States but also for the history of lexicography in the United States.

“Language,” Noah Webster wrote in the preface to his American Dictionary , “is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.” Almost 200 years later, the descendant of the company Webster founded is the last fully staffed American dictionary-maker standing. And its unabridged dictionary is its crown jewel.

“Within certain boundaries, we get to reinvent what the dictionary is,” Morse says. “The opportunity does not come often, so it’s vitally important that we seize it.”

“I was working on twerk ,” Emily Brewster whispers in her tidy cubicle on the Merriam building’s second floor. A warren of desks stacked with papers and shelves groaning with books, the Editorial Floor, as it is officially known, could pass for a newspaper newsroom. But one thing is missing: noise. Into the 1990s, talking was all but banned and staffers communicated by writing on pink citation slips, even to make lunch plans. Silence still reigns; like most of her editorial colleagues, Brewster doesn’t have a phone on her desk.

Merriam-Webster editorial department in the 1950s

Now, on this summer afternoon, the Merriam associate editor is moving on to upcycle , specifically the noun form: “an upward trend in business activity.” That’s the quick, first-draft definition she’s typed into an Excel spreadsheet titled New Words, a document in which Merriam staffers suggest and track possible dictionary additions. Brewster is collecting examples of nounal usage, from Merriam’s electronic citation files and from the database Nexis. (The electronic system was created in 1983 but paper citations, or “cits,” were also generated until 2009.) Another definer has noted a verb form, “to recycle materials into a product of higher intrinsic value.”

Brewster copies and pastes quotations that use the word, plus the source and date, into a Microsoft Word document. There’s a 1981 Associated Press story about airline stocks, a 1984 Business Wire release about insurance brokers, a 1997 Houston Chronicle piece on mortgage rates. As she tinkers with the definition, I ask whether she wants to avoid upward in the definiens (aka the definition) because the definiendum (the expression being defined) is itself an up word. “What I want is the most easily comprehended wording,” she says. “It is less than ideal to use upward in a word like upcycle . But upward trend is a phrase that people really understand and isn’t overly complicated.” 

I suggest “a period of increased economic activity.” She politely ignores me. Then I point out that the upcycle examples she has culled all refer to financial products like stocks and insurance, indicating that it might be a narrow Wall Street term rather than a broad economic one. “How about ‘an upward trend in the value of financial instruments’?” I ask. “That’s very good,” Brewster replies. “Can I use that? We can put your initials in the dictionary. Which nobody gets.” (Look out Noah, here I come.)

Brewster wears narrow black eyeglasses and has excellent posture. At 41, she is one of three younger Merriam editors with a word-nerd cult following thanks to their tweets about objectless prepositions , the history of scuttlebutt , and why people were looking up satire last week, as well as videos on flat adverbs and weird plurals . Brewster is a general definer, meaning she doesn’t have a specialty. This is the first time she has been assigned to New Words, which is “kind of just the dream job of a lexicographer,” she says.

Brewster picks five or six potential newbies at a time, collects citations, and types up sample definitions and notes on possible “senses,” or distinct meanings, of each word or phrase. She lets more complex candidates “percolate” for days, weeks, or even months before either writing a final definition or deciding that a word isn’t worthy of entry just yet. (Brewster’s editor, Stephen Perrault, who has Merriam’s best title, director of defining, makes the final call on whether or not a New Word makes the Unabridged .) Vocal fry is on Brewster’s to-define list, as are voice actor and voice cast . She’s also getting started on a new sense of the verb troll ; while the revised Unabridged definition already includes “to antagonize (others) online,” Brewster is seeing growing usage in an offline sense, too.

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. The current project began with a few staff members in 2009 and has since ramped up. Merriam has issued three updates, which it is calling “Releases”: 4,800 new or revised entries plus new senses of existing entries in January 2013 (including aftermarket and cyberbullying ), 2,800 last March ( bad hair day and badassery ), and 2,750 in October ( superfood and vuvuzela ). Release 4 is due in the spring.

And four other questions Lexicon Valley’s Mike Vuolo asked Stefan Fatsis after reading this piece.

Work on the Third took more than a decade, an editorial staff of 70, and scores of consultants; the book lists 202 experts in fields from Maori etymology to pavement construction to colorimetry to knots. The Third wasn’t done until every definition was completed. But a dictionary isn’t primarily a book anymore. It’s a database. The deadline to update is never, or always, because a digital dictionary can be updated continuously and because language evolves continuously. For the Unabridged project, Merriam is assigning some work in alphabetical order, but it also is adding and updating in several other ways:

1) Revising 1961 definitions that are outdated, in some cases embarrassingly so. Autism , defined in the Third as “absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity,” is now “ a developmental disorder ” with a detailed clinical explanation. Marriage has a new subsense for same-sex marriage. Menopause is no longer “called also change of life. ” With Release 4, the first sense of homosexuality will change from “ atypical sexuality ” to “sexual attraction or the tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex.” Other constant targets: entries in the Third containing language that might offend—from the use of he , him , his , and himself as gender-neutral pronouns to the inclusion of words like Negroid , half-breed , and mongoloid in definitions or example quotations.

2) Redoing groups of words by subject matter. When I visited, Mark Stevens, who heads Merriam’s general reference publishing (everything that isn’t a strict dictionary) but who has an expertise in music, had completed scores of jazz, rock, ethnic, and classical music terms, and was plowing through contemporary pop. Associate editor and general definer Kory Stamper has been revising religious terms on and off for three years.

3) Editing entries randomly, even if it means falling down lexicographic rabbit holes. Senior editor for life science Joan Narmontas came across arborvitae , thought it needed work, and wound up tinkering with 81 additional trees and shrubs, from bog pine to cryptomeria to thuja . “I knew I shouldn’t be doing it,” she says. “But I also knew if I didn’t do it now, I would never do it.” It took her about a week to spruce up all that flora.

4) Adding the new words. Merriam is including about 100 of them per release. New words are central to any dictionary revision because they reflect changes in the language and because they generate news stories that lead to page views and subscriptions. People want to know whether ollie or booty call have made “the dictionary.” (In the case of the online Unabridged , yes, they have .)

5) Importing entries and senses from five decades of annual updates to the Collegiate dictionary. There are thousands of them—the editors aren’t even sure how many. Merriam is doing similar work with other sources like its Medical Dictionary . Some recent additions from the Collegiate : catnapper , debeard , deep throat , eureka moment . And from the Medical : caffeinism , essential tremor , forensic odontology , music therapy .

6) Revising definitions of the most looked-up words. Merriam keeps track of every word looked up on the free online dictionary, which is based on the 11 th edition of the Collegiate , published in 2003 . In 2010, the company began posting the Top 25 daily, weekly, and all-time lookups. The most in-demand words tend to have meanings that are complicated, nuanced, or misunderstood. According to Merriam's spreadsheet tally, pragmatic is No. 1 since 2010, with almost 30 percent more hits than second-place disposition .


The problems with the reader favorites are typical of many definitions in the Third : misleading orders of meaning, old-fashioned language, dated or inadequate examples, the absence of senses and uses that have gained currency in the past 50 years. For instance, the entry for irony , which is No. 8 on the all-time list, placed the little-used adjective form—“made or consisting of iron”— ahead of the familiar noun. That’s been changed . Jazz , on the other hand, hasn’t been updated yet. The first noun sense in the 1961 definition isn’t the style of music, it’s “ vulgar : COPULATION.” That’s because the Third listed senses in what’s known as historical order, or the order in which they first appear in print, from oldest to newest. Readers, however, typically want to see the most common meaning of a word first, and that’s how senses are listed now. Merriam hopes to redefine the Top 1,000 lookups by the end of 2015.

Brewster spent a year overhauling a dozen of the top words, including pragmatic and disposition plus affect and effect , didactic , ubiquitous , conundrum , holistic , insidious , integrity , hypocrite , and love . Then she moved on to the New Words. In the months since my visit, her work has became more structured, with weekly deadlines for words starting with specific letters: H the week ending Nov. 14; then M, N, and O; then I, P, and Q; then R, S, and T; then J and K; then U through Z plus A; then B and L; then D through G; then—wrapping up her work on Release 4 last week—C, including clickbait and candy corn .

She has produced anywhere from five to 25 definitions a week. Twerking is ready, she tells me in December. Nutjob (which dates to 1959) and minorly are good to go. Jeggings is, too. The new sense of trolling looks promising, she says, “but first I have to finish hot mess .” Brewster is very excited about hot mess . Thanks to Google Books, she found it in a machinists union trade journal from 1899 : “If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk that is what goes. Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.”

Upcycle is also done. Brewster eschews “upward trend in business activity” for “a cycle or part of a cycle marked by growth, increase, or improvement.” Alas, my “financial instruments” wording doesn’t make it. Too narrow. Instead, Brewster offers three broader examples: “a period of economic growth,” “a period during which something (such as a rate, price, or stock value) increases,” and “a period of increased or increasing success, popularity, or availability.” The last one includes a quotation about an up cycle for Russian figure skating.

The updating of Webster’s Third is a big deal because Webster’s Third was a big deal. The Third —which is actually the eighth Merriam unabridged volume in a straight line back to the American Dictionary ; it’s the third one containing the word “new”—followed the company tradition of revising its biggest book once a generation. But it represented a massive departure in substance and style from Webster’s Second , which was published in 1934. That upheaval provoked a controversy unlike any before in lexicography.

Second Edition

The Second was what one Merriam editor calls the Internet of its time: 3,350 pages long, with more than 600,000 main entries, including proper nouns, and hundreds of pages of biographical, geographical, and literary appendices and other encyclopedic matter. The Second was designed to be a single-source reference for the educated classes and an aspirational text for the masses. It contained long lists of popes and dukes, and hundreds of illustrative quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dickens. But there was no mention of Mae West, Eugene O’Neill, or Babe Ruth. Popular culture, a term dating to the 19th century , was considered too unrefined for such a serious work. The Second was also priggishly didactic, prescribing what its ivory tower editors and consultants considered “proper” language, and brusquely dismissing usage that was, as its labels declared, incorrect , improper , or illiterate .

The editor of the Third , Philip B. Gove, imposed what he saw as logistically, culturally, and lexicographically necessary changes. The Second couldn’t get any bigger, so Gove eliminated almost all of the “nonlexical” encyclopedic matter, plus tens of thousands of main entries, to make space for new terms—words that originated from world war and the Cold War, technology, science, sports, politics, and, yes, pop culture.

Philip B. Gove

Schooled in the modern field of structural linguistics , Gove believed that speech should guide usage, that rules obscured the reality of how language is used, and that dictionaries should describe rather than prescribe usage. He replaced the Second ’s subjective usage labels with standard and nonstandard classifications and cut back on the application of the label slang . The idea was to let notes and quotations help to illustrate a word’s usage. Gove didn’t want to depend on the writing and speech of dead white males alone to do that. He quoted Mickey Spillane and Ethel Merman , the latter to illustrate (quite nicely) one sense of the transitive verb form of drain : “Matinee days are tough; two shows a day drain a girl.”

The Third triggered a full-on culture war, one that began with a poorly written Merriam press release touting the appearance of ain’t in the dictionary. Ain’t actually was in the Second , but Gove, and in some instances the Third itself, did a lousy job of explaining that the inclusion of a word—that is, an acknowledgment of its existence—did not amount to an endorsement of how it was used in speech or writing. The floodgates opened. Critics liberal and conservative alike attacked the Third as an assault on proper English, an air-raid siren of social and linguistic decay.

In a January 1962 Atlantic essay titled “Sabotage in Springfield,” Wilson Follett called the Third a “shock,” “a scandal and a disaster,” and “in many crucial particulars a very great calamity.” (Follett was appalled that hepcat was added while the names of the apostles were deleted.) The New York Times fulminated a dozen or so times against the book’s “permissiveness” and “informality”; in one editorial , it mockingly used unlabeled slang from the Third to urge the “passel of double-domes at the G. & C. Merriam Company joint” to stop the presses and start over. Writing in The New Yorker in March 1962, Dwight Macdonald compared the Third to the end of the world, and not entirely figuratively.

“Philip Gove called the English language ‘an instrument of the people.’ He said Webster’s Third should have ‘no traffic’ with artificial distinctions of correctness in the language,” David Skinner, the author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published , said on Slate ’s language podcast Lexicon Valley in 2012. “These are fighting words. It’s like he was taking an ax to Webster’s Second . It’s like he was taking an ax to a stack of classroom textbooks that since the 18 th century had been upholding the rules on ‘shall’ and ‘will’ and ‘imply’ and ‘infer’ and hundreds of other subtle linguistic niceties.”

Maybe the uproar reflected post-Sputnik insecurity about America’s place in the world, or worries that racial tensions and longhaired beatniks (a new word, defined fantastically , in the Third ) would topple the old order. Or maybe it reflected concern that established institutions—Merriam-Webster among them—could no longer be trusted. Whatever its origins, the furor was mostly misguided. Critics frequently decried words and usages from the Third that were also in the Second . The debate continued in popular media for years, even into the new century. (In a 2001 cri de coeur in Harper’s against what he viewed as permissive usage, David Foster Wallace attacked the “notoriously liberal” Third— and repeated mistakes made by Gove’s critics. The Third , he wrote, “included such terms as heighth and irregardless without any monitory labels on them.” The former was labeled chiefly dialectal and the latter nonstandard .)

According to Herbert C. Morton’s The Story of Webster’s Third: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics , Time Inc. became interested in buying Merriam and republishing the Third , marking with an asterisk words it considered objectionable. The book and magazine publisher American Heritage mounted a hostile takeover attempt, its president telling the New York Herald-Tribune that the Third was an “affront” to “sound scholarly principles.” That failed; in 1964, Merriam was acquired in a friendly deal by its current owner, Encyclopaedia Britannica. So American Heritage created a competing big book, 1969’s American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language , complete with a usage panel of more than 100 editors, journalists, and professors, including Wilson Follett, Dwight Macdonald, and other fervent critics of the Third . Random House also published an unabridged dictionary , in 1966.

But for all the outrage and umbrage, the Third didn’t cause Merriam to topple from its perch atop American lexicography. The book sold well, and lexicographers and linguists mostly praised it. Gove, however, was “deeply troubled and hurt,” Morton writes, by the vicious attacks, and he spent the next decade at Merriam “doggedly defending his principles and explaining his work.” But he also kept doing nuts-and-bolts lexicography, writing definitions of scatological and racially insensitive words (over Gove’s objections, Merriam’s president had removed fuck from the galleys of the Third ) and helping with early planning for the inevitable Fourth . Gove died in 1972 at age 70.

Every editorial decision Gove made was dictated by space: the need to create as much of it as possible so he could cram new words into the finite boundaries of the printed book. Space, or the limited amount of it, is why dictionaries employ all sorts of symbols and abbreviations. Gove claimed he saved 80 pages in the Third by using fewer commas.

He also decreed that individual senses of words wouldn’t get separate lines. Neither would quotations; Ethel Merman’s description of her work was tacked on to the end of sense 2b(3) of drain . Most dramatically, Gove redefined Merriam’s defining style, banning the use of complete sentences. As lexicographer Ben Zimmer puts it , Gove-style definitions start “with a general category (or genus) followed by various distinguishing features (or differentiae),” in which commas are permitted only to separate items in a series. The resulting single statement must be replaceable—that is, it can be plugged into a sentence in place of the word it’s defining. An airplane, for instance, was defined by the Third as “a fixed-wing aircraft heavier than air” (genus) “that is driven by a screw propeller or by a high-velocity jet and supported by the dynamic reaction of the air against its wings” (differentiae).

Gove wanted to save space, paradoxically, so his dictionary could be as expansive as possible. Sometimes, the results were comical. Two of the Third ’s most frequently mocked definitions are door , at 72 words, and weighing in at 91, hotel :

a building of many rooms chiefly for overnight accommodation of transients and several floors served by elevators, usually with a large open street-level lobby containing easy chairs, with a variety of compartments for eating, drinking, dancing, exhibitions, and group meetings (as of salesmen or convention attendants), with shops having both inside and street-side entrances and offering for sale items (as clothes, gifts, candy, theater tickets, travel tickets) of particular interest to a traveler, or providing personal services (as hairdressing, shoe shining), and with telephone booths, writing tables and washrooms freely available

Salesmen! Travel tickets! Shoe shining! The entry for oxygen is an even-more absurd 192 words long: “a nonmetallic chiefly bivalent element that is normally a colorless odorless tasteless nonflammable diatomic gas slightly soluble in water, that is the most abundant of the elements on earth occurring uncombined in air to the extent …” Take a breath and chuckle. But Merriam’s Stamper says that oxygen helped her get inside the minds of her defining predecessors.

“Before I started working on the Unabridged , I was very quick to pooh-pooh that [defining style] as, like, ‘This person is so full of themselves. They think they know everything about oxygen and they’re going to say everything they know about oxygen,’ ” Stamper tells me. “So I read something like oxygen or hotel and they’re still pretty risible, they’re pretty laughable. … But I understand why the definer got to a point in looking at all of the evidence for oxygen , that they felt like, ‘If this is unabridged, then, goddamn it, it’s going to be unabridged.’ ”

Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionaries

Online, there’s no imperative to abridge. Editors aren’t counting characters to make a definition fit on a printed page, and they’re not sending words to the lexicographic guillotine to make room for a new crop of entries. Book production constraints forcibly narrow the focus of definitions and, Merriam president John Morse says, “deliberately leave some aspect of a word’s character unacknowledged.” Online, for the first time in the history of lexicography, that’s not necessary. “You really try to say, ‘Here is the space and interest to tell this story in the fullest possible way,’ ” Morse says. “From a definer’s point of view, this is the most rewarding kind of defining you can do. You’re not self-censoring with every word you write down.”

At the same time, definers like Stamper and Brewster must find the balance between telling the fullest story and deciding what’s useful to or necessary for the average reader. Are 192-word definitions OK? How many quotations should illustrate a meaning? How long should etymological and usage notes run? Do words need to percolate for years—at Merriam, the waiting period was often a decade or longer, as evidence slowly accumulated in the citation files—before they are granted admission?

“Obviously, it’s very liberating,” says Perrault, the director of defining. “We can add lots of good stuff now and not worry about it. But we do have to remind ourselves that there’s still value in conciseness and that maybe people looking up a word aren’t really interested in seeing eight quotations for that word.”

Consider god . In the Third , god was a bit of a hot mess. There were separate entries for god and God , and they were long, cluttered, missing key nonreligious meanings, and written with a Christian bias. Stamper sifted through 20,000 citations, plus countless articles, books, and reference works, and whittled god into a compact yet intellectually thorough five senses and 15 subsenses that include quotations from the Bible, Ulysses , Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot , and Publishers Weekly , and this example sentence: “I wish to God you’d shut up.” It took her four months. “I’m really proud of what I did, but I’m also terrified of the entry,” she says. God tends to provoke strong reactions. (In December, Stamper talked to Slate ’s David Plotz about what it’s like to work as a lexicographer.)

The Third ’s rigid rules and resulting quirks emerged from Gove’s style manual, which is the stuff of lexicographic legend: more than 600 single-spaced pages organized in black, loose-leaf binders known, imposingly, as the Black Books. Merriam didn’t create a contemporary version of the Black Books for the Unabridged update. But Perrault and director of editorial operations Madeline Novak—he was hired in 1979, she was hired in 1980, they were married in 1984—did implement a bunch of changes. Some of those address Govian tics that have annoyed lexicographers for 50 years, like the Third ’s refusal to capitalize any headword (except, against Gove’s wishes, God ) and the limited use of descriptive labels like slang .

“People wanted those labels because they wanted the dictionary to tell them that this is not a regular word in English,” Perrault says. “And I think that’s an appropriate expectation.”

That may sound like Merriam is moving closer in philosophy to the critics who assailed Gove’s willingness to let trends in language dictate the usage recommendations, or lack thereof, made by the Third . But it’s really just taking a more common-sense approach to what a general dictionary like the Collegiate or Unabridged is supposed to do: report how a word is used. Explaining in full how a word’s usage came to pass and offering an opinion about that usage is a task for a usage dictionary . “One strives for complete objectivity; the other is predicated on subjectivity,” Stamper says, “whether that subjectivity is informed by the author’s personal peeves or a collected body of evidence showing the ‘best practices’ of English.”

Other changes in the Unabridged reflect the evolution of English. As language and speech have grown more informal since 1961, so has lexicography. Parodic-sounding run-on definitions like hotel and oxygen have given way to simpler prose. (Generally, that is. Door , hotel , and oxygen await revision.) In content and tone, the Third was less stiff and self-important than the Second , but it was still stiff and self-important. The capital-D dictionary was a serious work for serious people who displayed it prominently in their living rooms. Now there’s a dictionary on your phone.

“I always felt it would be good to make the language of the dictionary a little more normal, make it accessible,” Perrault says as he, Novak, and I sit around one of those old wooden desks on Merriam’s first floor. “That was not the focus for W3 .”

“It was written to sound like an unabridged dictionary,” Novak says.

“Which in a way is appropriate,” Perrault says. “I feel like there is something you could call ‘the voice of the dictionary.’ When you write a definition, you can’t let yourself go—you’re expressing yourself as ‘the dictionary.’ There’s a certain formality to it. It’s a little Jeevesian, you might say. ‘What does this mean?’ ‘It means this, sir.’ ”

With this new revision, Perrault says, Merriam’s goal is to maintain the voice of the dictionary while changing its tone slightly, making definitions more straightforward. Other lexicographers, though, think this more laid-back version of traditional defining is still too stodgy. “Even though space on the Web is infinite, we’re still focused on the literary form that is the dictionary definition,” says Erin McKean, founder of the online dictionary Wordnik . “You can write villanelles with more ease than you can write Merriam definitions.”

Even if the definitions do feel like “definitions,” it’s clear that Merriam’s revised entries represent a new storytelling form. Accompanied by historical notes, the meatier definitions feel less like brief explanations than discrete biographies. There used to be a couple of lines of explanatory matter—an etymology, the occasional note on usage. Now that material is written, and in complete sentences. These notes can be blindingly scholarly, filled with odd symbols and diacritical marks, like the entry for the combining form blephar- :

borrowed from Greek, from blépharon “eyelid,” probably going back to a derivative from the base of blépein “to see”
Eric Hamp (in Glotta , vol. 72 [1994], p. 15) suggests *gʷlep-H-ro- from the base *gʷlep- (whence blépein ). The variants in initial gl- found in Doric— glépharon for blépharon —are explained by Hamp as outcomes of word-initial *gʷl- with syllabification of the -l- , yielding *gul- , reduced by analogy to *gl- (see his earlier article “Notes on Early Greek Phonology,” Glotta , vol. 38 [1960], p. 202). The aspirate in blépharon , according to Hamp, would be parallel to kephalḗ “head” from *kep-h ₂ -l- . Alternatively, Robert Beekes sees the g-/b- alternation as a sign of pre-Greek substratum, citing Edzard Furnée, Die wichtigsten konsonantischen Erscheinungen des Vorgriechischen (Mouton, 1972), p. 389—though both Beekes and Furnée observe that the evidence for this particular alternation is exiguous.

They can also be playful, like the entry for bippy :

probably originally a nonsense word, used in the phrase “You bet your sweet bippy!”, denoting an unspecified body part
The line “You bet your (sweet) bippy!” was popularized in the American television show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In , which ran from January 1968 to March 1973. George Schlatter, the executive producer of the show, said the following about the word: “Our shows are gone through quite thoroughly for taste. What upsets most of the critics are the jokes they don’t understand, and that’s more of an educational problem than a taste problem. We say things like ‘You bet your bippy!’ or ‘You bet your nurdle!’ I’m sure some people attach a dirty connotation to those words. We don’t even know what they mean; they’re just funny” (quoted in Joan Barthel, “Hilarious, Brash, Flat, Peppery, Repetitious, Topical and in Borderline Taste,” New York Times Magazine , 6 Oct. 1968). The hypothesis that the word was borrowed from Yiddish pipik/pupik “navel” has not been confirmed.

Or the one for asshat :

The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious earlier history as a sort of cultural meme. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from recent films: “Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!” (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, Raising Arizona , 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen); “I like your ass. Can I wear it as a hat?” (a character’s parody of a flirtatious advance, City Slickers , 1991, script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel). Of more immediate etymological relevance may be this dialogue sequence from the television series That ’70’s Show : “RED: Eric, if you don’t want to wear your ass for a hat, you'll get up here, pronto! DONNA: You better go. You know how that ass-hat screws up your hair” (“Red Fired Up,” Episode 24 of Season 2, script by Dave Schiff, first aired May 8, 2000). The current meaning of asshat may be a reanalysis, perhaps in part based on the expression “have one’s head up one’s ass” (meaning “to be obtuse, be insufficiently conscious of one’s surroundings”), perhaps in part due to simple phonetic similarity to asshole . A more precise history will depend on the location of further attestations.

“I make it sound very scholarly,” says Merriam etymologist Jim Rader, a onetime Slavic linguistics graduate student who writes the historical notes. “I want to be very scholarly about a very ridiculous word.” He says that adding detailed dives into etymologically interesting words wasn’t part of the Unabridged master plan, but the luxury of space has made it possible. “I just figured I’m writing this stuff down anyway, so why not put it in the dictionary?”

Webster’s Fourth New International Dictionary, Unabridged was supposed to be on bookshelves two decades ago. In February 1988, Merriam president and publisher William Llewellyn wrote a 70-page memo—labeled C-O-N-F-I-D-E-N-T-I-A-L—detailing plans for the new edition. The Fourth would not radically depart from the Third the way the Third had departed from the Second , he said. But there would be tweaks and pruning, especially of “poorly attested entries” such as impuberty and impulsor. The Fourth would add 50,000 new terms, from bodice ripper to minivan to sabermetrics , bringing the total to half a million and growing the book by 300 pages.

The revision, Llewellyn predicted, would take eight years and cost nearly $7 million, twice as much as it cost to publish the Third . In its first two years, the Fourth would generate an annual profit of $2.8 million on sales of 40,000 units, and about $900,000 a year after that. It wasn’t “an investment to warm the heart of a Harvard M.B.A. perhaps,” Llewellyn wrote. But it was “an opportunity and a responsibility” essential to Merriam’s history and mission. The unabridged dictionary “is what makes Merriam Merriam and is what fosters the sales success of our other books. Without it we will quickly be just another dictionary publisher and before long, not even the biggest one.”

The action, however, was in the lucrative market for smaller, cheaper college dictionaries. At the time Llewellyn wrote his memo, Merriam was moving more than a million copies a year of the ninth edition of the Collegiate , which was published in 1983. By the fall of 1988, it had been on the New York Times best-seller list for 155 weeks and counting . But competition was mounting. Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin, and Random House were preparing new college dictionaries of their own.

Noah Webster etching.

Random House added the word “Webster’s” (which has been a generic synonym for “dictionary” for more than a century ) and mimicked Merriam’s distinctive red jacket design; Merriam sued and won , but a federal appeals court overturned the jury verdict and $4 million award. After Merriam published the 10 th edition of the Collegiate in 1993, rivals sniped at the exclusion of words like cyberpunk and mountain bike. Merriam countered that it alone offered radwaste and ranch dressing . But the “word wars” were eating at the company’s market share and its cachet. When, as Morse recalls, a book buyer for Sam’s Club told a Merriam sales rep that “any old red Webster’s will do,” it was a sign of the times, and it hurt.

In this aggressively competitive marketplace, Merriam doubled down on front-list titles that would sell. Updating the Collegiate required returning to the citation files and re-examining and often revising every element of all 150,000-plus entries, a project that engaged the entire staff and necessitated about 1 million editorial decisions. The company produced bilingual dictionaries. It entered the burgeoning English language learner’s market, which had been dominated by the British dictionary-makers Oxford, Collins, and Cambridge. Merriam’s Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary , published in 2008, involved a decade of labor.

Plans for the Fourth were tabled again and again. Still, the big book, or at least the idea of the big book—the single, grand, definitive authority on American English, the dictionary that distinguished Merriam from its rivals—remained ingrained in the company’s DNA. The project became Merriam’s white whale or, better yet, its Elvis, rumored to be alive, occasionally even spotted inside the building. After Llewellyn’s memo, the staff spent a year “subject coding” the Third , examining every sense of every entry and applying, where appropriate, a subject—law, medicine, architecture, music, etc. Work began on a style manual, with rules governing parts of speech, order of entry, variant spellings, run-ons, boldface colons, cross references, inflected forms, functional labels, pronunciation, etymology, dating, usage labels, usage notes, illustrative quotations, and more. But other projects intervened and the manual was never finished.

During my visit to Springfield, I tell Morse that Gove must have assumed the Third would be updated in 30 or 40 years, if not sooner. “I’m quite sure that he thought that,” Morse says. “And I think that probably a number of editors were thinking exactly that. And I suspect that our slowness in getting to this has probably been a source of disappointment and frustration: ‘Why couldn’t you have done more and done it earlier?’ ” Morse says the answer is that lexicography is “the art of the possible.” So many words, so little time.

Like many Merriam employees, the 63-year-old Morse is a company lifer. He was hired in 1980 after getting a master’s in English language and literature from the University of Chicago. His academic work had nothing to do with lexicography. (Few Merriam staffers arrive having dreamed of a career defining words. The place just fits bookish people with degrees in literature or linguistics who don’t want to be academics.) Morse wrote definitions for the 1983 Collegiate , directed publication of a geographical dictionary, and helped convert the Third to a digital format. When he was named president and publisher in 1997, he became only the second lexicographer since Noah Webster to hold the top business job.

The assumption inside Merriam at the time was that the company would publish another fat unabridged dictionary, maybe with a CD-ROM stuck in a flap on the inside of the front cover. That’s what drove the perceived need for a Govian style manual, and also ratcheted up staffers’ worries. If sales of Merriam’s most popular title, the Collegiate , were on the decline, how could the company justify investing the time and money required to create a Fourth ?

Morse had already decided that the company couldn’t—but also that a physical book no longer had to be the Holy Grail. In 2002, Merriam published one more addendum to the Third with entries— propeller head, tree hugger , golden handcuffs —already prepared for the new Collegiate edition the following year. But Morse decided that that would be it for printing-press revisions to the Third . The future of the Unabridged would be digital. As the decade rolled on, big projects like the learner’s dictionary were completed. The online Unabridged —which from its debut has cost $29.95 a year—began attracting subscribers. Morse scrapped the next all-consuming Collegiate update. Web advertising, subscriptions, and the backlist were paying the bills.

In early 2009, Morse told the editorial staff that the company was embarking on a full update of the Third . It wouldn’t be a Fourth . It would happen on the website only. It would be called the Unabridged . There was disbelief, relief, thrill. Finally . “This was the thing we had been talking about my entire career at this company,” says Daniel Brandon, a physical science editor. Chris Connor, a life science editor, says that, “for a number of us, W4 was just this rumor. It was a signpost on the horizon.”

After some surprise that the staff’s efforts would not generate an enormous bound volume, the overwhelming scope of the project quickly set in. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be a lot of work,’ ” Stamper says.

In 2010, a group of scholars at Harvard University and MIT performed a quantitative analysis of Google’s then-new database of 5.2 million digitized books, which included 361 billion words in English. They estimated that, as of 2000, the English lexicon included more than 1 million unique words, and compared that corpus with the words in the Unabridged and the American Heritage Dictionary. In a paper published in Science , the researchers concluded that “52 percent of the English lexicon—the majority of the words used in English books—consists of lexical ‘dark matter’ undocumented in standard references.”

One obvious takeaway is that the breadth of the English language is greater than any dictionary. Another is that data can help lexicographers do their jobs better. The Google Books Ngram Viewer —which resulted from the ongoing “ Culturomics ” project at Harvard and MIT—and other digital corpuses can detect “low-frequency words” lexicographers might be missing. Such resources can also produce a more accurate assessment of current usage, “to reduce the lag between changes in the lexicon and changes in the dictionary,” the researchers wrote.

These findings raise some existential questions for dictionary-makers. In the Internet age, what’s the point of selective lexicography? Do we really need an Unabridged or OED to tell us whether a word is a word? Or is our new ability to type a string of letters into a search engine and instantly see how often and in what context it’s been used an adequate substitute for a dictionary? Absent the old space constraints, why should Merriam or anyone else get to pin a ribbon on a word and welcome it to the club?

Merriam-Webster‘s citation files, pictured in 2003

A traditional lexicographer doesn’t catalog every word known to humankind. The Unabridged is in fact a very much abridged compilation of the English language—it’s just not quite as abridged as other dictionaries. What a lexicographer does, then, is decide whether a word has become established in the language, determine how its use has evolved, and explain that to readers. “Anybody on the Internet can write a definition of anything and put it up there,” Perrault says. “But I think most people want to see what ‘the dictionary’ says. That still exists, and it’s good for us because it means people appreciate what we do, that there are people who have expertise.”

Merriam’s expertise has for generations been grounded in its voluminous citation files, and in the ability of its trained editors to interpret the information contained therein. Merriam is still old school about collecting “cits.” Editors spend an hour or so a day “reading and marking”: reading books, magazines, newspapers, trade journals, websites, catalogs, cereal boxes—almost any published matter—and marking noteworthy usage. The printed material is stacked on shelves in a back corner of the second floor, and typists enter the cits into the electronic files. (The paper cit files, which date to the late 1800s, are a lexical treasure trove : yellowed newspaper clippings, advertisements and cartoons, handwritten comments about definitions and proposed changes, each slip stamped in purple ink with an editor’s name and the date.)

Gove and his staff didn’t have access to databases that could support or refute what a handful of citations told them. Given the hit or miss nature of reading and marking, their judgments were remarkably good but far more speculative than ones being made today. “The smaller the sample size, the more credence you give to everything you see,” says Katherine Connor Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press in New York.

The slow accumulation of cits created a culture of deliberateness. It took blog six years to travel from coinage in 1999 to admission into Merriam’s Collegiate . That was considered fast. Now, as the Culturomics researchers posited, the proliferation of electronic databases and antsy online audiences are encouraging lexicographers to move faster still. “We’re probably at the level that if some prominent new word comes into being and goes viral, we don’t want to have to wait two or three years to put it in the dictionary,” Perrault says.

Perrault estimates that about 90 percent of the words in the New Words spreadsheet will eventually make the Unabridged . Scanning the list I notice upfake , a basketball term for a player feigning a shooting motion. It doesn’t register on the Ngram Viewer. Googling yields a few hits for instructional drills and videos . ESPN columnist Bill Simmons used it in 2006 . (“Finally, with the clock winding down, he puts a quick move on Kaman, upfakes him, and drains a 16-footer to win the game.”) The New York Times hyphenated it in a live blog in 2010 . But that’s about everything.

Since the New Words list is just a place for editors to track the progress of a word’s use, there’s no guarantee upfake will ever be entered in a Merriam dictionary. (It doesn’t make Release 4.) I ask Perrault and Novak why, in the bottomless well of the online dictionary, it shouldn’t.

“If upfake were used enough, it would have been in,” Novak says.

“Our only concern always is to accurately record the language,” Perrault says. “That’s still the case even if it happens more quickly than it used to. We’re still not going to stick things in there just because it’s this week’s word. … The standard doesn’t change.”

If this sounds like a contradictory message—that Merriam wants to be nimbler about acknowledging and admitting words (less than two or three years) but also wants to defend the standard that has defined and elevated the company for two centuries ( upfake needs to wait)—that’s because it is. The challenge for Merriam is finding the sweet spot between Noah Webster and the Internet, between a strict single standard and a lexicographic free-for-all.

That latter category might include Urban Dictionary and Wiktionary , which are examples of crowdsourced lexicography, or ordinary people defining words themselves. Traditional dictionary-makers have jumped into this sandbox because the public expects it and because it can be lexicographically fruitful. The British publisher Collins is entering reader-suggested words into its online dictionaries. Merriam isn’t going that far, but it is posting reader submissions on its Open Dictionary page— planking , kidult , conflict mineral —and adding some of them to the New Words queue.

(Soliciting help from readers isn’t a new phenomenon in dictionary-making. In 1879, the first editor of the OED , James Murray, appealed to “the English-speaking and English-reading public to read books and make extracts for” his planned dictionary. The “madman” in Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman , about the making of the OED , was one such contributor.)

Nevertheless, in an age when traditional lexicography might feel like a dying art, democratization is still provoking some anxiety. “Is this kind of crowdsourcing a worthwhile endeavor for dictionary-makers, beyond providing valuable publicity for publishers facing a tough consumer market?” Ben Zimmer asks in an article about the future of online lexicography in the December 2014 issue of Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America . “Or could the reliance on the wisdom of the crowds end up diluting the authority that the leading print dictionaries have traditionally held?”

Probably both. The vibrancy of online wordsmithing suggests that the concept of the dictionary is changing, as is our sense of who should decide what’s in it. That’s fine with lexicographers like McKean of Wordnik , which searches corpuses containing billions of words, including traditional and user-generated dictionaries. McKean comes from mainstream lexicography; she was Oxford’s editor-in-chief of U.S. dictionaries. But she now argues that conventional dictionaries are good mostly for telling readers what words are in conventional dictionaries—that is, for validating the way people tend to think about the acceptability of words—and that they don’t do enough to reveal the munificent glories of an ever-changing language. 

“More people are coming around to the idea that the dictionary is the convenience store of words,” she says. “And even the Unabridged is the convenience store of dictionaries.”

Just the day before, McKean tells me, she spotted a word in the New York Times that she had never seen before: tsukuroi , defined by reporter Alice Rawsthorn as “ the art of repair .” Wordnik’s search engine didn’t pick it up. So McKean posted a comment and a link , noting its existence in print in English. When I told Brewster at Merriam about the exchange, she added tsukuroi to the New Words spreadsheet. Time will tell whether, after months or perhaps years of research and assessment, Merriam decides it rises to the level of a dictionary word. In McKean’s view, it was legit the moment someone used it.


Zimmer, another former Oxford editor who runs two nontraditional word sites, Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com , compares the digital transformation of dictionary publishing to what’s happened to the music business. Absent the defining consumer product—a hardbound Webster’s Third or a pressed vinyl Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band —how does an industry persuade consumers that it’s still relevant? Traditional dictionary publishers “have a prestige value to them and are not supposed to be following the whims of lexical fashion,” Zimmer tells me. “Then you put that into the digital era where people expect to look up words and find out information about words that may well be evanescent, and you’re left with a quandary of what to do.”

Without their Sgt. Pepper’s , Zimmer thinks that dictionary makers will be challenged to make a case for their continued relevance. “I’m happy that they’re pushing this approach,” he says of Merriam and the online Unabridged , “but I have a hard time really knowing where it is in the landscape, the cultural significance. They’re just trying to keep up with the changes like the rest of us.”

Former Merriam president William Llewellyn was wrong about what would happen if the company didn’t undertake Webster’s Fourth , that it would be dethroned as America’s biggest dictionary publisher. But he was prescient about how technology would change the business of lexicography. In 1961, “ Webster’s Third could be the dictionary of record as a book alone,” Llewellyn wrote. “In 2001, Webster’s Fourth cannot be the dictionary of record unless it is also a magnetic disc.”

Plans for magnetic discs soon gave way to visions of the Internet as Merriam and other dictionary publishers tried to decipher the digital world. In the mid- to late-1990s, electronic versions of dictionaries—“loose nukes,” Morse calls them—began turning up online. Among them were the seventh edition of the Collegiate , published in 1963, which had been licensed to government agencies and universities, and the 1913 printing of Webster’s International Dictionary, Unabridged , which was uploaded as part of Project Gutenberg .

In 1995, Merriam looked into securing the URL dictionary.com, only to discover that a pair of entrepreneurs had grabbed it a few weeks earlier. It then faced a decision that would help determine its future: Should it license the Collegiate to the company with the killer Web address or go it alone? Houghton Mifflin and Random House licensed to Dictionary.com , and their books, plus HarperCollins’ Collins Dictionary , still serve as main sources for the site. Merriam decided to follow a different model. While it licensed the Collegiate to America Online in 1995, it also chose to make its cash cow available on the Internet, for free.

“The gamble that we took is: Do people use their dictionaries or not?” Morse says. “Because if people just buy a dictionary and take it home and don’t use it, then this was a very foolish thing to do.” Merriam needed eyeballs online so that companies would be persuaded to buy advertising space there. If the print dictionary was a desk ornament people opened only occasionally, Merriam would be sacrificing book sales while the website wouldn’t generate the clicks advertisers demanded.

It turned out that people did use the dictionary, and used it obsessively. For the first few years, the loss of the dictionary.com URL hurt—people typed “dictionary” into a search engine and clicked on the first result. Over time, though, users started to search directly for the word they wanted to look up. “This really becomes now a battle of not who has the best URL but who has the best search-engine optimization,” Morse says. (Using Google, I searched for the Top 20 words on Merriam’s list of all-time lookups. Merriam-Webster.com was the first dictionary hit for 13 of them, though Google’s own definer topped the page for most.)

As more readers went online for definitions, book sales slowed and the dictionary business contracted. Random House stopped revising its college dictionary in 1999; its staff was absorbed by Dictionary.com. Webster’s New World Dictionary , written and edited in Cleveland since its inception in 1951, didn’t fill vacancies and bounced among corporate owners. (A fifth edition was published in August by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; the last full-time staffer in Cleveland worked on the book from home.) The American Heritage Dictionary , which has been owned by Houghton since its debut in 1969, has four full-time lexicographers on staff; its latest edition, published in 2011, relied on a Rolodex of freelance lexicographers.

Sales of the 11 th edition of the Collegiate , released in 2003, didn’t approach the boffo figures of the 1980s, failing to crack a million in its first year and declining ever since. Morse doesn’t envision publishing a 12 th edition anytime soon. Given the dearth of competitive pressure on the print side now, “trying to tear apart the Collegiate every 10 years and give it that level of scrutiny is something we just don’t have to do,” he says. “No dictionary user online is looking around for the copyright date.” But the book isn’t being neglected either. The 11 th edition is still in print, and Merriam adds 150 or so new words a year. That rollout gets media attention , which in turn sells hard copies. “It’s nowhere near the point where you would consider not publishing,” Morse says.

The sales declines in physical books were eventually offset by revenue from online advertisers attracted to the Merriam-Webster name and by readers willing to pay for the full Unabridged . (Morse says the site has tens of thousands of subscribers but won’t specify further.) Not long after the company put the Collegiate online, the computers that ran the website were stolen from the Springfield offices. Merriam had to revert to an older version of the site and told readers what had happened. Scores of sympathy emails poured in. “They were bonding with an online dictionary,” Morse said. “Everything we wanted people to feel about dictionaries, in fact they did.”

The main Merriam website generates more than 100 million page views per month, Morse says. Add in traffic to Merriam’s mobile, learner’s, Spanish, children’s, and visual websites, as well as its free apps, and the number climbs above 200 million. Merriam-Webster books adorned generations of American living rooms as totems of erudition and tools of assimilation. (I have a leather-bound fifth edition of the Collegiate bought by my immigrant father in 1949.) Now, the company generates more income from online advertising than it does from the sale of physical books. “Those lines have crossed and will never cross again,” Morse says. “We are at this point primarily a digital publisher.”

Despite the decline in the business of print lexicography—and in the number of full-time jobs for lexicographers—we are living in a golden age for the study and appreciation of words. Oxford’s Katherine Connor Martin calls it a period of “meta awareness” of language. Dictionaries are more accessible than ever before. More people are using them than ever before. There is more writing about language than ever before . ( Really , there is . Honest . I swear . No , double swear .)

Thanks to public-relations gimmicks like the “word of the year”—Merriam chose culture in 2014; Oxford picked vape —or the contest last spring to select a new Scrabble word , stories about language have become reliable media clickbait. Language is a lot like sports and politics. No matter how much or how little people know, they’re sure to have strong opinions.

Erin McKean of Wordnik

Courtesy of Erin McKean/Wikipedia

In this popular, fast-moving linguistic world, McKean’s argument for a more inclusive conception of “the dictionary” seems reasonable. At a TED Talk in November , McKean defined her job as trying “to put all the words possible into the dictionary.” “My job is not to decide what a word is. That is your job,” she told her audience. “Everybody who speaks English decides together what’s a word and what’s not a word.”

True. But for everyone posting a neologism on Wordnik, as McKean encouraged her audience to do, there’s someone else who wants to know what expert lexicographers have to say about the provenance and penetration of individual words. “It’s great that people take an interest, that people care about their language,” says Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the reference group at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “At the same time, there’s a certain percentage of the population that demands a certain amount of curation.”

In other words, dictionaries—at least traditional ones—aren’t collections of “all the words possible.” They are surveys of the state of contemporary language, conducted by people trained to decide whether the use of a particular word rises to some subjective level that merits inclusion in a collection of similarly adjudged words. The Third was such a collection on the date of its publication in 1961. The online Unabridged is an ongoing collection now.

When the fifth edition of the American Heritage was published in 2011, its press materials asked: “Will this be the last print dictionary ever made?” That was marketing hoo-ha. Dictionaries of various sizes and styles will be rolling off the presses for years to come because the margin on and demand for some of them remain high. But, at 2,100 pages, that book might indeed have been the last really big dictionary of the English language ever printed.

Ain't in the dictionary

Photo illustration by Slate. Phone by Rvlsoft/iStock.

Why? When the current pass-through is completed, the OED might consume 40 volumes of tiny type. (Unlike other dictionaries, the OED is a historical, scholarly, and perpetually money-losing project subsidized by the University of Oxford that aims to record the sweep of English from the 17 th century to the present. It’s targeted at institutions; an individual online subscription costs $295 a year.) At Merriam, editors aren’t whacking words from the Unabridged . So with longer definitions, copious illustrative quotations, beefy historical notes, and a roomy layout, a paper Fourth , were one to be printed, would be far, far bigger than the Third —an unbindable (in one volume) and probably unsellable work of 10,000 pages or more.

What’s missing from the online Unabridged , as opposed to a hypothetical physical version, is the sense that you’re on a journey. Open the book to find one definition and you’ll likely wander to countless others. But while shelfies—that is, fans of physical books, as opposed to photos of your bookshelf —might lament the passing of print, the people remaking dictionaries aren’t especially nostalgic. “I honestly don’t think in the vast view of things that that much is lost,” Morse says. “I think these kinds of databases cry out to be digital.” Plus, we’re only a few decades into the online era. If it turns out that enough people are hungry for a digressive print-like dictionary experience, someone will create the graphic interface to make it possible, for a price.

The Merriam-Webster building in Springfield, Massachusetts, was completed in 1940

Indeed, the decision to reconceive the Unabridged as an online-only product opens up more possibilities than it closes off. There will be more words to deploy in print and digital products, more material with which to push the boundaries of how the public engages with and explores the language, more incentive to create snazzy online tools that consumers might want to buy. Ultimately, that’s why Merriam’s decision to devote the company’s resources to a project with no production date or revenue target might ultimately make sense. That and a 200-year-long commitment to chronicling the state of American English, a commitment that, hokey as it might sound, Merriam takes very seriously.

“The interesting thing about walking around this floor is that you’re actually watching knowledge get created,” Morse says as we tour Merriam’s editorial department. “Some editor is sitting down with a bunch of citations and is drawing conclusions about the meaning of a word that no one has drawn before. Every day here the editors contribute to the sum store of human knowledge. They didn’t aggregate stuff that other people did. They actually created a new piece of knowledge. For me, that’s just as cool as it gets.”

When I ask Morse and other Merriam editors when the Unabridged might get to zzz , or whatever the final word might be, the answer is “after I retire,” “after I’m dead,” or “never.” The OED estimates its overhaul will be completed in 2037. Merriam isn’t even bothering with an end date. “When we get to Z, we’ll presumably continue right on to A again,” Perrault says. In the digital age, modern lexicography is a treadmill cranked up to the highest speed, like in the closing credits of The Jetsons . No matter how fast lexicographers define, they can’t outrace the evolution of the language.

Deseret News

How the Merriam-Webster Dictionary word of the year helps people build mental resilience

Merriam-Webster Dictionary has a long-standing tradition of posting the top word of the year, and this year it was “authentic.”

The dictionary explained that in 2023, “authentic” had “a substantial increase in 2023, driven by stories and conversations about AI, celebrity culture, identity, and social media.”

The editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Peter Sokolowski, told The Associated Press , “We see in 2023 a kind of crisis of authenticity. What we realize is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”

What is the true meaning of authenticity?

University of California, Berkeley, described authenticity as the following four characteristics:

  • “Bringing one’s ‘whole self’ to work or a relationship rather than putting on a fake face to please others.
  • Speaking one’s mind and letting others know where they stand on things, even if what they have to say isn’t particularly popular.
  • Taking responsibility for one’s actions and not blaming them on someone else.
  • Keeping promises; following through on the things they say they will do for themselves and others.”
  • Why is Merriam-Webster’s 2023 word of the year ‘authentic’?

What is the value of authenticity?

A study published by Frontiers in Neurology in August 2023 suggests authenticity can make a person more resilient throughout their life and decrease stress.

Researchers surveyed undergraduates impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. They assessed how authentic the young college students believed themselves to be on the authenticity scale . Those who scored themselves lower reported higher stress levels nine weeks after the hurricane than those with higher authenticity scores.

The publication also referred to a study which found authenticity to be correlated with life satisfaction and high self-esteem, while negatively associated with anxiety and depression. It described authenticity as “an important aspect of healthy psychological functioning and positive subjective well-being.”

Researchers of the study Brian Goldman and Michael Kernis said, “Other research has found that self-determination (i.e., autonomous self-regulation) is related to higher levels of, and more stable, feelings of self-worth”

How can authenticity help dementia patients?

Being authentic not only helps an individual’s own mental health, but the study showed authenticity helping caregivers work with dementia patients more effectively.

Patients with dementia have a complicated view of the self, since many can’t remember current aspects of their life. However, the study lists ways to help people with dementia still feel like themselves, including using visual art eduction. It said, “The self persists despite cognitive impairment or dementia and that a participatory artistic intervention may promote authentic living in people with dementia in care homes.”

The study also urges caregivers to be more authentic when interacting with dementia patients. The example included describes a person with dementia searching for a family member who already passed away. Though it’s easier to go along with the patient than tell them the truth, acting authentically can improve the relationship between the caregiver and the patient, grounding it in reality.

“If caregivers of older people apply concepts of authenticity to both understanding the person for whom they care and to their own experience in a caring role, this may improve resilience and prevent burnout,” the study included.

Authenticity builds trust not only with dementia patients, friends, family, co-workers and more, but it helps individuals trust themselves.

A Merriam-Webster dictionary sits atop the citation files at the dictionary publisher’s offices on Dec. 9, 2014, in Springfield, Mass. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2023 is “authentic.”

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Definition of shitpost

 (Entry 1 of 2)

transitive + intransitive

Definition of shitpost  (Entry 2 of 2)

Word History

1993, in the meaning defined above

1996, in the meaning defined above

Dictionary Entries Near shitpost

shit oneself

Cite this Entry

“Shitpost.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shitpost. Accessed 26 May. 2024.

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  1. Merriam Webster Citation in Text Apa

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  1. Step-by-Step guide to write Definition Essay (Structure|Tips|Outline)

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  1. Essay Definition & Meaning

    The meaning of ESSAY is an analytic or interpretative literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view. How to use essay in a sentence. Synonym Discussion of Essay.

  2. ESSAY Synonyms: 76 Similar and Opposite Words

    Synonyms for ESSAY: article, paper, dissertation, theme, thesis, composition, treatise, editorial; Antonyms of ESSAY: quit, drop, give up

  3. ESSAY Definition & Meaning

    Essay definition: a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.. See examples of ESSAY used in a sentence.

  4. To 'Essay' or To 'Assay'?

    Those last ones probably won't be in the final exam. To 'essay' is a verb meaning 'to try, attempt, or undertake.'. To 'assay' is to 'to test or evaluate.' 'Essay' also has the meaning referring to those short papers you had to write in school on various topics.

  5. ESSAY

    ESSAY definition: 1. a short piece of writing on a particular subject, especially one done by students as part of the…. Learn more.

  6. Essay

    essay, an analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usually much shorter and less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis and usually dealing with its subject from a limited and often personal point of view. Some early treatises—such as those of Cicero on the pleasantness of old age or on the art of "divination ...

  7. essay noun

    essay (by somebody) a collection of essays by prominent African American writers; essay on somebody/something The book contains a number of interesting essays on women in society. essay about somebody/something Pierce contributes a long essay about John F. Kennedy. in an essay I discuss this in a forthcoming essay.

  8. Essay Definition & Meaning

    Essay definition: A testing or trial of the value or nature of a thing.

  9. essay noun

    Definition of essay noun in Oxford Advanced American Dictionary. Meaning, pronunciation, picture, example sentences, grammar, usage notes, synonyms and more.

  10. How to Write a Definition Essay (Plus Topics You Can Use ...

    Some essay assignments are a lot easier than others and the definition essay is one such type. A definition essay is exactly what it sounds like it should be: An essay you write to provide your reader with the definition of a word. However, it's more in-depth than simply writing a dictionary definition. ... According to Merriam-Webster (https ...

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    essay - WordReference English dictionary, questions, discussion and forums. All Free. ... Look up "essay" at Merriam-Webster Look up "essay" at dictionary.com. Go to Preferences page and choose from different actions for taps or mouse clicks. In other languages: Spanish | French ...

  12. Dictionary entry references

    To quote a dictionary definition, view the pages on quotations and how to quote works without page numbers for guidance. Additionally, here is an example: Additionally, here is an example: Semantics refers to the "study of meanings" (Merriam-Webster, n.d., Definition 1).

  13. 3 Ways to Cite a Dictionary Website

    Example: Merriam-Webster's Learners Dictionary, s.v. "Filibuster," 2. List the date you accessed the entry. For online entries, type the word "accessed" followed by the date you last viewed the web page in month-day-year format. Place a comma after ...

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    The G. & C. Merriam Co., founded in 1831, acquired the rights after the death of Noah Webster in 1843 to his An American Dictionary of the English Language. This work had first been published in 1828 and was the first American unabridged dictionary. A second edition had been published in 1840, and subsequent editions were published by the ...

  15. Assay Definition & Meaning

    assay: [verb] to analyze (something, such as an ore) for one or more specific components. to judge the worth of : estimate.

  16. 3 Ways to Cite a Dictionary Meaning in MLA

    3. Write the edition if you're citing a subsequent edition. Check the back side of the dictionary's title page for the edition number. If you're citing the first edition, don't include the edition number. Use the abbreviation "ed." and write a comma after the period in the abbreviation.

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    The Merriam-Webster dictionary adds a few other unique definitions, for instance "the maintenance or administration of what is just" for instance, by justly managing conflicting claims, rewarding, and punishing. Other definitions are "conformity to truth, fact, or reason", "the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action" but also ...

  19. Merriam-Webster

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    Learn the structure of a definition essay and read two examples of essays about concrete and abstract concepts. ... Merriam-Webster added "Wi-Fi" to its dictionary in 2005, only eight years after it was invented. Today, most modern computers depend on Wi-Fi for Internet access. Free Wi-Fi is available in many restaurants, hotels, and coffee ...

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    Merriam-Webster.com was the first dictionary hit for 13 of them, though Google's own definer topped the page for most.) As more readers went online for definitions, book sales slowed and the ...

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    You will need a connection to view illustrations, hear audio pronunciations, and use voice search. Features: * New Vocabulary-Building Quizzes: fun, fast quizzes to learn new words or test your vocabulary. * Additional vocabulary-building resources available with in-app purchase. * Voice Search: look up a word without having to spell it.

  23. Definition Definition & Meaning

    definition: [noun] a statement of the meaning of a word or word group or a sign or symbol. a statement expressing the essential nature of something. a product of defining.

  24. Thesis Definition & Meaning

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  25. How the Merriam-Webster Dictionary word of the year helps people ...

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    continue: [verb] to maintain without interruption a condition, course, or action.

  29. Shitpost Definition & Meaning

    The meaning of SHITPOST is to post something online (such as a comment, video, or meme) that is deliberately absurd, provocative, or offensive. How to use shitpost in a sentence.