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Merriam Webster Inc. Business Information, Profile, and History

dictionary company american english

47 Federal Street
Springfield, Massachusetts 01102
U.S.A.

Company Perspectives:

The company's mission is to be the world's leading provider of information about the English language.

History of Merriam Webster Inc.

Merriam-Webster Inc. is among the world's leading publishers of dictionaries. With its flagship products, Webster's Third International Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster boasts a tradition in dictionary-making that extends back in a direct line to the great American lexicographer Noah Webster. Merriam-Webster also publishes an array of other reference books, including Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Encyclopedia, Merriam-Webster's Manual for Writers and Editors, a full range of dictionaries and thesauruses for students, and Spanish-English and French-English dictionaries in various sizes and formats. The Merriam-Webster editorial department, which is responsible for collecting the words and revising the Springfield, Massachusetts-based firm's dictionaries, is the largest group of lexicographers employed by any publisher in North America. With more than 16 million examples of word usage in context, the Merriam-Webster citation file may be the largest resource of its kind anywhere. Merriam-Webster publications are available in many electronic formats, including editions for the World Wide Web and for a variety of handheld devices. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary can be consulted free-of-charge at www.Merriam-Webster.com; the unabridged International and the popular Collegiate are both available by subscription online. Merriam-Webster Inc. is a subsidiary of Encyclopaedia Britannica Holding.

Noah Webster Compiling the First American Dictionary in the Early 1800s

The history of Merriam-Webster dictionaries begins in the 18th century with Noah Webster, the compiler of the first dictionary of the American language. Born in 1758, Webster established his reputation with the 1783 publication of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The Blue-Backed Speller, as it was popularly known because of its blue paper cover, was the book that more than five generations of American schoolchildren used from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th when learning to read and write. With more than 100 million copies sold, Webster's Blue-Backed Speller is likely the best-selling book in the history of American publishing.

In 1806 Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. With 30,000 entries, the Compendious Dictionary was not much larger than a modern-day paperback dictionary, but it was a ground-breaking book, the first to describe English as it was being spoken in North America. He then set to work on a much larger book, An American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster L.L.D., which was published in 1828 when he was 70 years old.

The appearance of An American Dictionary was a revolutionary event in American history. It boldly staked the claim for the existence of a uniquely American form of English, as evidenced by words such as "skunk" and "chowder" that had never appeared in any British dictionary, as well as vocabulary of the still-new American political experiment, like "Senate" and "Congress." Webster introduced other innovations as well. His book advocated the use of new, simpler forms of spelling--he altered "musick" to "music" and "centre" to "center," to name but two examples. An American Dictionary won almost immediate acceptance by public institutions in the United States, including legislatures, courts, and universities. However, selling for $20 a copy, an enormous sum of money at the time, the two-volume set was unlikely to be purchased in large numbers by the country's middle class.

The Merriam Brothers Revolutionizing Dictionary Publishing in the 1840s

In 1841, 82-year-old Webster published a revised and expanded edition of his lexicographical masterpiece. In 1843 he died. Not long afterward brothers George and Charles Merriam entered the dictionary business. Since 1831 their printing company in Springfield, Massachusetts, the G. & C. Merriam Co., had been producing everything from wallpaper and calendars to bibles and a series of law books. The Merriams negotiated a contract with Webster's heirs. It gave them the right to sell the remaining copies of the 1841 dictionary and, more important, to produce their own revisions of the book. The dictionary provided the company with a clear focus. In 1847 with the editorial assistance of Webster's son-in-law and literary executor, Professor Chauncey Goodrich of Yale University, the Merriam company published the third edition of An American Dictionary.

The Merriam brothers' shrewd business sense made their revision as revolutionary as Webster's first dictionary had been. Using smaller type and eliminating most of the generous margins, the Merriams reduced the physical size of the dictionary from two volumes to one. Their production savings were so considerable that they were able to lower the retail price of the dictionary from $20 to $6. Webster's family was shocked. But the G. & C. Merriam Co. had published a book that was, in its way, the first mass-market dictionary. Middle class Americans could afford it, as could most schools. The Merriams' marketing campaign, targeted aggressively at educational sales, went a long way toward establishing Webster's as the definitive dictionary. Having first encountered the dictionary in school and having regularly used it there, many people later bought one for use at home. In 1859 the G. & C. Merriam Co. brought out another revision. In addition to including sections on new words and synonyms, it was the first American dictionary to use illustrations.

By then the innovations of the Merriam Company's dictionaries had unleashed a wave of traditionalist backlash, the first that would occur periodically during the company's history. Objecting to the Merriams' innovations as reflecting the deterioration of the language and hoping to restore its purity, in 1860 Joseph Worcester brought out A Dictionary of the English Language, a book that for nearly a half-century would be the Merriam Company's primary competition. Even as the 1859 edition of An American Dictionary was being released, however, G. & C. Merriam had begun work on yet another revision. The company would labor over the new book for five years, as the Civil War raged in the nation. In 1864 An American Dictionary of the English Language, Royal Quarto Edition, Unabridged, under the editorship of Noah Porter, was published. It had an entry count three times larger than Noah Webster's 1828 edition. Popularly known as Webster's Unabridged, the dictionary was used in schools and universities, and in state and federal government up to the Supreme Court. It soon established itself as the standard dictionary in the country.

Moving Editorial Work In-House in the 1870s

After Noah Webster's death, work on the dictionary was conducted under the supervision of various professors at Yale University. By the 1870s, to guarantee stylistic and editorial consistency in their dictionaries, the Merriam brothers had assembled an in-house editorial department. The most important task of the department was oversight of the ongoing growth of the unabridged dictionary. Its 1878 printing included a new biographical section; the 1884 edition introduced a dictionary of place names.

The company's editorial department also began assembling the Merriam-Webster citation file. The file was originally a collection of index cards, each containing a single citation, that is, an example of a word as it had been used in a published source. The quotations were collected first from textbooks and later from newspapers, magazines, and other reputable sources by Merriam's editors. Citations were subsequently used by Merriam editors to infer the meaning of words. By the late 20th century the computerized citation file consisted of more than 80 citation words of searchable text, but they continued to be recorded on index cards as well. In 2005 the citation file contained more than 16 million examples of English usage, possibly the largest such collection in the world.

A New Title and a New Product in the 1890s

In 1890 G. & C. Merriam made ready to release the latest revision of An American Dictionary of the English Language. Much had transpired, however, in the years since Noah Webster published his early editions. By 1889, however, the copyrights on all of Webster's books had long expired; that very year the copyright on the Merriam Company's own 1847 edition expired as well. Some publishers began selling their own editions of these books once they were in the public domain. Others were calling their own books "Webster's Dictionary." To distinguish its dictionary--the direct descendent of Noah Webster--G. & C. Merriam gave its 1890 edition a new title: Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language. The new title was the first time that the Merriam Company had used the "Webster" name directly in the book's title; it also reflected the growing status of English as a global language and the United States' growing awareness of itself as a world power. The new book had grown since the 1864 edition, from 56,000 entries to more than 175,000.

Specialized editions of the dictionary had been common since Noah Webster's time. He had published a one-volume version of An American Dictionary and had created a dictionary for children from his Compendious Dictionary. In their time the Merriam brothers published The Counting-House Dictionary and a variety of other specialized dictionaries. In 1898 they created what would prove to be their most successful spinoff of all. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary was based on The National Illustrated Dictionary, an earlier and only modestly successful abridgement of the International. A great part of the Collegiate's eventual success was due to its size. Unlike the burgeoning International, the Collegiate was compact enough to fit easily on the average bookshelf or desktop. It could without much effort be quickly consulted on the sort of language questions most college students or educated adult readers might have. The Collegiate also reflected the extent to which English vocabulary had grown. It boasted a wealth of new words from the fields of education, social science, and sports, and in particular from the tremendous scientific and technological revolution the country was going through, from which inventions and concepts, such as the telephone, the automobile, the phonograph, and the light bulb, emerged almost daily. Collegiate sales would grow steadily through the 20th century until by 2004 Merriam-Webster had sold more than 55 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hardcover books in American publishing history, second only to the Bible.

Establishment of the Merriam-Webster Brand in the Early 20th Century

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, G. & C. Merriam had firmly established its Webster's dictionaries as North America's preeminent language reference, as evidenced by the adoption of the book as the dictionary of choice by a steadily growing number of educational and governmental institutions and the constantly increasing sales of Merriam products. The leadership of the company entered a new phase at the beginning of the 20th century. Charles Merriam sold his interest in the firm in 1877. When George Merriam died in 1880, the presidency passed to their younger brother, Homer Merriam. Homer remained at the helm--in name, at least--until 1904, when at the age of 91 he was replaced by Orlando Baker, who had in fact long been responsible for the company's oversight.

G. & C. Merriam's position as the market leader also was underscored by the continued use of the Webster name by dictionary publishers who had no relationship to Noah Webster or his work. For much of the early 20th century, the Merriam company struggled in the courts and before the Federal Trade Commission to block the sale of these so-called "fake Websters." Despite efforts that extended into the 1940s, the courts would uphold the right of other publishers to call their books "Webster's Dictionary." By the 1950s the Merriam Company had given up trying to control the use of the name.

Expanding Dictionaries and Facilities in the 1930s

Competition with other publishers to produce the best and biggest unabridged dictionary continued apace through the early years of the century. New editions of the unabridged dictionary appeared regularly. Webster's New International Dictionary was published in 1909. Twenty-five years later, after working through the hardest years of the Great Depression, Merriam published Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition. Including expanded front and back matter, color plates, maps, and geographical and biographical sections, it was an enormous book that had been as difficult to manufacture as it was unwieldy to use. It nonetheless maintained Merriam's exacting attention to lexicographical accuracy.

While the dictionary grew in size, the G. & C. Merriam facilities in Springfield were becoming more and more crowded. In the early 1930s planning was begun for a new building. It was completed in 1939 with an entire floor given over to the editorial department. The building continued to serve as Merriam-Webster's headquarters in 2005.

The publication of the mammoth Second International Dictionary in 1934 led to the realization that certain sections had grown large enough to be published as separate books. In 1943 Merriam published the first Webster's Biographical Dictionary and in 1949 the first Webster's Geographical Dictionary. Their status as independent volumes in the Merriam backlist was established in 1961 when a new revision of the International appeared without any geographical or biographical sections. The 1940s also saw the first appearance of the Dictionary of Synonyms, a book that formed the basis for the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, which was first published in 1976.

Controversy Around the Third International in the 1960s and 1970s

After World War II Merriam saw its most important task as a new revision of the International Dictionary. Revisions had appeared approximately once a generation since the mid-1800s, and it was felt that since the 1930s the language had grown to such an extent that a new unabridged dictionary was needed. The result was Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, a book that polarized lexicographers, writers, and readers alike. The controversy focused on Merriam's fundamental philosophy of dictionary making, which is so-called descriptivism. Descriptivist dictionaries attempt to accurately record how language is used by educated speakers rather than to dictate how language should be used (the approach taken by prescriptivist dictionaries). Merriam used its citation file, culled from publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harper's, and Atlantic Monthly, to document the evolving nature of English. Prescriptivist critics were appalled by the barbarisms they perceived in the Third International. Wilson Follett, the author of a well-known text on American English usage, was angered by the inclusion of words and phrases such as "wise up," "ants in one's pants," "one for the books," "center around," and "due to." Follett complained that "to convert the language into a confusion of unchanneled, incalculable williwaws, a capricious wind blowing whithersoever it listeth ... is exactly what is wanted by the patient and dedicated saboteurs in Springfield." So outraged was one individual that he attempted to buy the G. & C. Merriam Company in order to do the book all over again from the ground up. The purchase bid was unsuccessful. The would-be buyer, however, was able to persuade Houghton Mifflin to publish its own book, the American Heritage Dictionary, a prescriptivist antidote to the Third International, which came out in 1969.

That was the first shot in a dictionary war, the likes of which G. & C. Merriam had not experienced since the days of Joseph Worcester. Other major publishers began releasing dictionaries of their own to great public fanfare. Random House published its own unabridged dictionary, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language in 1968, while in 1980 Simon & Schuster acquired the rights to Webster's New World Dictionary, a competitor that had first appeared in the 1940s. In the words of Merriam-Webster President John Morse, by the early 1980s dictionary publishing was, "a bare-knuckles business, with very bloody fights for market share." Merriam's situation was complicated further by the consolidation of retail book-selling in the same period. Publishers endeavored to offer big chains like B. Dalton, Crown Books, Barnes & Noble, and Borders deals that would sell thousands of books, guarantee their product would be promoted in hundreds of stores across the country, and possibly close their competitors out of those same retail locations. As a result, by the beginning of the 1990s the Merriam company--which in 1982 changed its name to Merriam-Webster Inc.--had seen its share of the dictionary market drop noticeably.

Electronic Products and Recovery in the 1990s

Merriam-Webster sold its first electronic products in the 1960s when it leased its typesetting tapes to linguists for research purposes. Its first true electronic consumer products had to wait until the 1980s. Then, in conjunction with Franklin Electronic Publishers, Merriam-Webster produced handheld electronic spellcheckers and, later, handheld dictionaries that looked like calculators, except they had miniature typewriter keyboards instead of numeric pads. In 1995 Merriam-Webster introduced the first electronic product of its own, the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Deluxe Electronic Edition for CD-ROM. That same year the company established its first online presence at America Online under the AOL keyword MERRIAM.

By then work had already begun on the company's own web site. Launched in 1996 under the name Merriam Webster Online, the site took the bold step of offering visitors unlimited free access to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. There were several reasons for the move. First, the company saw the online dictionary as a tremendous vehicle to promote the Merriam-Webster brand. For decades the company had struggled to link the names "Merriam" and "Webster" in the public consciousness. By the late 1990s the site was getting more than ten million page views every month--a number that had grown to more than 100 million monthly page views by the 2000s--and every visitor saw plainly they were using a Merriam-Webster dictionary. The strengthened brand awareness carried over to the sale of print dictionaries, which by 2003 had increased 17 percent.

Moreover, the company was convinced that while dictionaries in various electronic formats, especially Web-based, might never fully replace print dictionaries, they would be an important means of dictionary use in the future. Finally, Merriam-Webster realized that to keep hold of its leadership in dictionary publishing, its dictionaries had to be accepted as the standard by which dictionaries were measured. To prevail as the country's standard it had to be online as well as in print. To surrender the Internet to another dictionary was to concede that Merriam-Webster's product was not the standard there.

In 2000 Merriam-Webster released the Third International Dictionary on CD-ROM. In 2002 the book was integrated into a newly designed subscription web site, Merriam-WebsterUnabridged. The site's subscribers are, naturally, individuals with a strong interest in language, people who perhaps grew up with the big unabridged dictionary in their home or local library, but who have come to appreciate the convenience and features of the online version. The company's most popular electronic products by the mid-2000s were its free web site and the handheld version of the Collegiate produced by Franklin Electronic Publishers.

In 2001 Merriam-Webster's owner parent company, Encyclopaedia Britannica, put out feelers in the publishing world about interest in buying the dictionary maker. The two firms declined comment on the possibility of a sale, but Merriam-Webster's market value was estimated in the business press between $20 million to $40 million. Encyclopaedia Britannica was trimming costs with drastic cuts in its workforce and in its presence online. In the end, however, no sale was made.

Moving into the latter half of the 2000s, Merriam-Webster anticipated increased use of its products electronically, not only online, but also in PDAs, cell phones, e-book readers, and other devices. Coupled as it is with the ongoing promotion of the Merriam-Webster brand, the company expected use of the electronic products to lead to further growth in sales of the print products as well. The company also anticipated an expansion into the world market, with dictionaries for individuals learning English as a second language. By 2000 English had become the lingua franca of world commerce and education. Approximately one billion people were learning the language every day, a fact British dictionary publishers had long known. A successful entry into this market would bode well for Merriam-Webster in the coming decades.

Principal Competitors: Houghton Mifflin Company; Oxford University Press; Simon & Schuster, Inc.; Random House, Inc.

Chronology

  • Key Dates:
  • 1806: Noah Webster publishes A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language.
  • 1828: Webster publishes An American Dictionary of the English Language.
  • 1831: G. & C. Merriam is founded in Springfield, Massachusetts.
  • 1841: The revised edition of An American Dictionary is published.
  • 1843: Noah Webster dies.
  • 1843: G. & C. Merriam obtains the rights to unsold copies of An American Dictionary and to create revisions of the work.
  • 1847: G. & C. Merriam publishes its first revision of An American Dictionary.
  • 1870: The editing of the dictionary moves from Yale University to company headquarters in Springfield.
  • 1877: Charles Merriam sells his interest in the company.
  • 1880: George Merriam dies.
  • 1890: Webster's International Dictionary is published.
  • 1898: Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is first published.
  • 1917: G. & C. Merriam sues Saalfield Publishing Company over the use of the name "Webster" in the dictionary title.
  • 1942: Dictionary of Synonyms is first published.
  • 1943: G. & C. Merriam publishes its first biographical dictionary.
  • 1947: The first paperback dictionary is published.
  • 1949: G. & C. Merriam publishes its first geographical dictionary.
  • 1961: Publication of the Third New International Dictionary unleashes a storm of controversy over "permissive" lexicography.
  • 1982: The company changes its name to Merriam-Webster Inc.
  • 1995: Merriam-Webster's Collegiater Dictionary, Deluxe Electronic Edition for CD-ROM is the first in a line of Merriam-Webster CD-ROM products.
  • 1996: The company web site, Merriam-Webster OnLine, is launched.
  • 2002: Webster's Third International Dictionary is put online in a subscription web site.
  • 2003: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition is published.
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