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Books

Word on the Street

Weekly look at New England book news

Behind the doors of the hulking Merriam-Webster building in Springfield, the past is very much present. Inside is the oak cabinet built to show off Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Old signs and photographs are on display, but the most precious relic is the 1806 dictionary that Noah Webster labored over for five years.

For that dictionary, Webster defined 37,000 words (the current unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary contains about 500,000) and Americanized British spellings, excising an “l” from “traveller,” turning “gaol” into “jail,” and so on. Yet reviews were mixed, sales slow. Webster’s next dictionary, published in 1828, had almost twice as many words and became an American standard but his publisher went bankrupt. His 1841 revision, priced at $15, sold poorly. When Webster died in 1843, the future of his monumental achievement was in doubt.

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The following year, brothers George and Charles Merriam, who ran a printing shop in Springfield, came to the rescue. They bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary, printed a new edition, and set the price at $6. Sales were brisk.

The brothers were always intent on improvement; they hired Yale University professor Noah Porter who assembled a team of 30 scholars to work on the 1864 edition. Webster’s etymologies were overhauled; literary quotations and illustrations were added. The new edition secured the company’s reputation as America’s preeminent dictionary publisher.

On a recent Saturday the company opened its headquarters to about 50 visitors on a tour. In addition to providing a history of the company, president John M. Morse and a few of his employees guided visitors through the building and discussed the company’s operations. Of special interest was the department on the second floor where about 35 editors track changes in the English language by reading and marking up newspapers, magazines, and books. Has “tattletale gray” outlived its usefulness? What about “snallygoster”? Up until a few years ago, the editors noted questions and made comments about the evolving usage of words on 3-by-5-inch slips of paper stored in rows of red metal file cabinets. Those notations are now entered into a computerized database.

What about the future? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, first published in 1898 and now in its 11th edition, has been one of the best-selling hardcover books in American publishing history but today it’s available for free online. The company has dictionary apps for the iPad, iPhone, and Android platforms, and this fall it will unveil a redesigned subscription website for the unabridged dictionary. The most recent print edition of the unabridged Webster’s dictionary holds a 2002 copyright. Will there be another? Morse said no decision has been made. “I have a feeling,” he said, “that the death of the print dictionary will be predicted many times before it actually happens.”

Coming out

 “Odd Apocalypse”by Dean Koontz (Bantam)

 “Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities” by Carl H. Nightingale (University of Chicago)

 “Final Victory: FDR’s Extraordinary World War II Presidential Campaign”by Stanley Weintraub (Da Capo)

Pick of the week

Tova Beiser of Brown University Bookstore in Providence recommends “The Light Between Oceans” by M. L. Stedman (Scribner): “In a thought-provoking debut novel, a lighthouse keeper and his wife living in Australia make a discovery and a decision that changes their lives forever. This beautifully delineated tale of love and loss, right and wrong, and what we will do for the happiness of those most dear to us is moving without being maudlin.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter
@JanLGardner.

Because of incorrect information given to the Globe and a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of years Noah Webster labored over the 1806 dictionary. The wrong middle initial was also given for company president John M. Morse. In addition, the word snollygoster was misspelled.

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