Accessibility links

December 27, 1998 - Merriam-Webster, Part 2 - 2002-02-11

INTRO: Our Wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble, take another look at a dictionary that's been going off to college in America for one-hundred years.

MUSIC: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"

AA: You have to be Mary Poppins to spell that word! But how about the word "centenarian".

RS: Centenarian. C-e-n-t-e-n-a-r-i-a-n. A noun meaning "one that is one-hundred years old or older" which describes the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. First published in 1898, the Collegiate -- as the name implies -- is targeted at the college crowd.

AA: Merriam-Webster updates the Collegiate annually, adding new words and taking out old ones. John Morse is the president and publisher of the Merriam-Webster Company. He says the biggest source of new words these days is computer technology, especially the Internet.

John Morse keeps his copy of the Collegiate Dictionary on his laptop computer, which was handy when we asked him to look up the term "chat room."


MORSE: "What we see for 'chat room' is that it's an online interactive group on the Internet. And interestingly it's dated in 1986. That means the earliest evidence we have of the word being used at all is from 1986, and that's a reminder, I think, of how new a technology this really is. Many of the words going in the dictionary have been in the language for just a few years, and I can give you another example of something where we're even newer than that: our new word 'netizen,' active participant in an online community of the Internet, is from 1994. So that word is really only four years old. That's very, very fast for words to get into the dictionary and really speaks to the tremendous power that the Internet and the World Wide Web are having.

AA: "Is there a threshold of how many times you have to see it in print?"

MORSE: "There's not a hard-and-fast rule, but we do want to see evidence that the word is going to come into the language and stay in the language. We don't put this year's vogue word in just to take it out again next year. So we're looking for evidence of a word being used in many different publications or at least three to five years and very often it would take typically at least ten examples in order to satisfy the conditions."

RS: "What is the mortality rate of words? You say you're very careful in your selection because you don't want them in one year, out the next."

MORSE: "Unfortunately, more words are coming into the language than going out of the language. So the mortality rate is less than the fertility rate and that's a problem for dictionary makers. We've had to resort to one trick after another to find room for these words. Over the course of about ten years, when we do a big ten-year revision, we'll probably add more than ten-thousand new words and meanings to the dictionary. Unfortunately, fewer than that come out."

AA: "To carry this metaphor here, what are the risks of overpopulation?"

MORSE: "That other parts of the dictionary get crowded out or the dictionary itself gets bigger, and we have done both of those over the years -- added pages to the Collegiate Dictionary so it's bigger or removed other sections."

AA: John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster.

RS: There are lots of other dictionaries that also use the name Webster. Webster was Noah Webster, America's most famous lexicographer.

AA: Back in 1843 the Merriam-Webster Company acquired the rights to revise and publish Noah Webster's dictionaries. But early in this century courts found that the name Webster was generic. That gave other companies the right to use the name. So, today Merriam-Webster finds itself competing against all those other Websters. However the Collegiate is Number One at the US college level.

RS: To find Merriam-Webster on the Internet, go to To find Avi and me ...

AA: Just send us a note.

RS: Looking ahead to next week, we'll start the new year with a play on words with some very funny cowboys.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.