You can find the print version in backpacks and bookcases. You can see the online version on computer screens and PDAs. It’s the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and it is marking its 200th anniversary.
To celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of this first truly “Americanized” dictionary, Clark College welcomed Merriam-Webster’s president and publisher John M. Morse on October 17 in the Gaiser Hall Student Center for a lively discussion entitled Dictionaries and Democracy: 200 Years of Dictionary Making in America.
Two hundred years ago, the company’s namesake Noah Webster created A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language — the very first dictionary to reflect the unique culture and vocabulary of the American people. Along with introducing a reform from British spelling (colour to color; musick to music, goal to jail, humour to humor), the volume included thousands of words (chowder, hickory, skunk) which were in daily use in America, but not listed in any other lexicon. It was more than a collection of words, Morse said. "It was a social document."
Morse explained how Noah Webster and his successors — the brothers George and Charles Merriam — continued throughout the nineteenth century to maintain the first American dictionary’s status as the “quintessential democratic document.” Morse also touched upon the ways in which Webster’s legacy still resonates in the twenty-first century through electronic and online language publishing.
“The same convictions that inspired Webster to create the first American dictionary,” said Morse, “continue to motivate Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers to this day. What has changed considerably, of course, is the ever-evolving English language itself, and the method we now have to access that wealth of information. Merriam-Webster now has a fully searchable electronic database containing over 60 million words—a vast body of knowledge which allows us to study language in ways Noah Webster never dreamed of.”
Morse told the capacity audience that adding a word to the dictionary is a three-step process. The first step is when the word is coined or catches on. The second step involves overall awareness of the word. The third step is when editors feel that the word has become so much a part of the language that it should be added to the dictionary, a step that can take five to ten years. Because language evolves, said Morse, about 10,000 new words are added to the dictionary each decade.
Morse noted that words stemming from technology can be added more quickly. Blog, for example, began to be commonly used in 1999. It was added to the dictionary just five years later.
Following his speech, Morse took questions from the audience then signed copies of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The audience (including Clark College interim president Bob Knight, seen in the photo on the left) was also invited to enjoy slices from two beautiful cakes, baked by Clark College Culinary Arts department, to commemorate the event.
Beginning his tenure at Merriam-Webster in 1980, John Morse’s responsibilities as president and publisher now include all company operations. He continues to beactively involved in the company’s editorial process, including the creation of the best-selling Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.
A distinguished scholar and engaging speaker, Morse has brought his expertise and love of language to a wide range of regional and local forums throughout the country. He has been seen and heard on a variety of radio and television programs including NPR’s Morning Edition, CNBC’s Power Lunch, and C-SPAN’s BookTV.
He is also now an honorary Penguin. Marti Earhart of the Clark College Bookstore presented John Morse with a t-shirt featuring a definition of a penguin that even Noah Webster might have enjoyed.
Click here to learn more about Clark highlights.