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Quibble Me This
1997, Jan-Feb (June 11, 2008)
By Patricia Tierney

"Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true." A perceptive observation by English lexicographer Samuel Johnson, over 200 years ago, that English is always changing and dictionaries of English vary in their mastery of it.

Johnson's renowned 1755 dictionary, a labor of nine years, earned fame not only for its exhaustive scope but for its painstaking effort to establish good usage and illustrate usage using quotation. In 1828, American lexicographer Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language, an effort of over 20 years. It took Johnson's prescriptiveness a step farther by Americanizing some British spellings.plough became plow, honour became honor — and "American English" began to formally distinguish itself from "British English."

The Merriam family purchased the rights to Webster.s work and name after his death in 1843. Merriam has since published and updated eight unabridged dictionaries of English under the Merriam-Webster name. The eighth, published in 1961 at a cost of $3,500,000 and 757 editor-years as Webster's Third New International Dictionary, caused a sensation because its approach to usage changed from prescriptive to merely descriptive. It opened incredible debates among literary people: should not a dictionary, after all, set the usage standard? By what rules (if any) do words become archaic and unused, by what standards (if any) are new words admitted, and by whose consensus does an existing word attain a new meaning?

If you favor the descriptive approach, use a desk dictionary based on the Third. Be aware that the Webster name lost its copyright protection many years ago, and only Merriam-Webster on the title page assures you of the Merriam quality of work.

If you prefer the somewhat more scholarly and prescriptive approach, I recommend the American Heritage Desk Dictionary, first published in 1969 after the dissension caused by the Third, and reissued several times since. The American Heritage maintains a fine balance between authority and the inevitability of change.

Your dictionary probably is the only tool that will stay with you the duration of your writing career. Use a good one.

And stay tuned. . . Merriam-Webster's Fourth is well along in development and is to be published in the next few years. The English-speaking world awaits. End of article.

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