By John Prince
Back when I was a rising fifth grader, the supplies list for school included a dictionary. That’s “dictionary”—as in a printed volume with pages and a hard red cover and the word “DICTIONARY” in white lettering across the front.
“So you can look up words, learn how to spell them—and also learn the meanings,” our teacher assured us.
“How can you look up a word if you don’t know how to spell it?” I asked with perfect ten-year-old logic.
Our fifth grade dictionary had little line drawings for many words, which led to jokes like, “I looked up ‘stupid’ the other day and there was your picture.”
Up until the 1500s it didn’t matter much how words were spelled so long as they came within an approximate range. The only people who could read were the clergy, scholars, and, sometimes, the wealthy. Words were spelled like they sounded and local areas often had unique pronunciations.
Enter the era of moveable type in the 1400s and spelling became a bit tighter. More people were becoming literate and odd spellings tended to slow them down. Books were much more common and spread across regions, countries and continents. Consistency in spelling and meaning became more important for the accurate communication of information and ideas.
American Noah Webster brought it all together, publishing his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806. Then he spent the next 20 years working on the second edition, The American Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1825. To complete his opus, Webster learned 26 languages to complete the etymology of the words. The dictionary contained about 70,000 words including some “American” words like “skunk” and American spellings like “color.” A second edition was published in 1840.
Webster had some competition. George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary after his death and published a number or revisions to the original over the decades. Ownership changed in 1962 when it became a subsidiary of Enclyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. (BTW, that’s the British spelling!) In 1983, having lost the rights to use “Webster’s Dictionary” in a court case, the name was changed to Merriam-Webster Dictionary with new several new editions and revisions appeared.
Noah Webster would have been astounded when M-W entered the digital age in 1996 with free access to the dictionary, thesaurus, and other products.
Word-alcoholics (otherwise known as lexicographers) love the M-W Word of the Day feature and cherish the opportunity to perhaps add new words on the Open Dictionary.
As writers and publishers, we get to know the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on a daily basis as the preferred source for “general matter of spelling” by The Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS). Editors and proofreaders might have the author’s manuscript open on one monitor, a CMoS search box on another, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on another. M-W spellings and definitions, while they may differ from other dictionaries and style guides, are the “bible” for most publishers, including Hallard Press.
While Spellcheck, Grammarly and other online writing/editing tools are useful, they do not take the place of a good human writer or proofreader looking up every suspect word on M-W.
“We encourage authors to consult the Merriam-Webster Dictionary when writing and self-editing,” says Hallard Press Managing Director Nancy Hellekson. “Compound words and hyphenated words are the worst culprits. Authors may believe they know how to spell them, but Merriam-Webster will confirm, or change, the author’s confidence.”
Rate your spelling ability? From the three choices below, choose the correct spelling. (Don’t look them up—trust your instincts. Put your answer in the comments section. We’ll have the correct responses in the next Hallard Press Gazette.
- Makeup (noun)
- Make up (noun)
- Make-up (noun)
- Childlike (adj)
- Child like (adj)
- Child-like (adj)
- Lovey-dovey (adj)
- Lovey dovey (adj)