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December 13, 1998 - Merriam-Webster, Part 1 - 2002-02-21

INTRO: It's time for our weekly look at American English. Today our Wordmasters, Avi and Rosanne, talk about the anniversary of a popular American dictionary.

MUSIC: "Words"/Missing Persons

lyrics: What are words for, when no one listens anymore ...

AA: Gosh, I hope people are listening to our words! I'm Avi Arditti, and that's a song I used to listen to back in college.

RS: And I'm Rosanne Skirble, and speaking of college, today we're going to talk about a dictionary designed to help kids get through college. It's the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a collection of about 160,000 words taken from the company's Third New Unabridged Dictionary. The Collegiate is updated annually.

AA: But since the folks at Merriam-Webster have just come out with the 100th-anniversary edition, we thought we'd mark the occasion. John Morse is president and publisher of Merriam-Webster. He came by for an interview. . .

RS: We asked John Morse was, just how does a word get into the dictionary.


"The main way we do it is by a program that we call 'reading and marking.' Reading and marking involves every member of our editorial staff spending a portion of every working day reading -- reading newspapers, magazines, journals, books, repair manuals, parts catalogs -- whatever we can find that will give us a good idea of what are the words that are actually being used in everyday life. "

AA: And if a new word appears enough times in print, then it could very well end up in the dictionary.

RS: We also asked John Morse a question that a lot of listeners ask us: Why are there differences in the way certain words are spelled in American English versus British English.


"What you have to understand is that once the period of colonization was well under way in north America, that we really had two communities of English speakers widely divided from one another. And communications were not as good in those days, and it would really become inevitable that the two communities would just evolve in some different ways. Certainly our original lexicographer Noah Webster had a hand in this. He very much believed in spelling reform and simplifying the way words were spelled, and he was really instrumental in taking the 'u' out of a number of words in American English that the British still retain."

AA: Like the word "labor. "

RS: It's l-a-b-o-u-r in British English, but l-a-b-o-r in American English.

AA: Merriam-Webster has the largest share of the dictionary market in the United States. But it faces growing competition extending beyond the printed word to CD-ROMs and even into cyberspace.

RS: In fact, on the Merriam-Webster web site on the Internet, you can now look up the complete contents of the Collegiate Dictionary -- for free. The address is Again, the address is

AA: John Morse of Merriam-Webster says an online dictionary is a great research tool -- and not just for people who need to look up words.


"For the first time in lexicography, now lexicographers know what are the words that people are actually looking up. Up until now we've guessed about them but we now we really know and it's interesting. The words that are most frequently looked up are the words 'paradigm,' 'ubiquitous,' 'oxymoron,' 'synergy,' 'serendipity' -- these are the words that are being used frequently in our prose and in our speech today but they're words that I think all of us are a little uncertain about. And what I think is very heartening is that people are coming to the dictionary to learn more about the words that they are hearing and maybe want to use themselves. When we look at the site logs of the words that are being looked up, the vast, vast majority of them are spelled correctly. People are better spellers than we give them credit for. "

RS: That was John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster which is celebrating 100 years of the Collegiate Dictionary.

AA: we'll have more of that interview in two weeks, but next week Rosanne and I will introduce you to a hot-selling American toy that speaks a language all its own.

RS: Until next week, with Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.