Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Happy 50th, Webster's Third!

Earlier this month, lexiphiles were glued to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, as Sukanya Roy of South Abington Township, Pennsylvania won a grueling 20-round contest. As the drama unfolded on national television, the viewing audience got to hear some incredibly obscure words, along with their definitions, all read aloud from a great American dictionary now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The official reference of the bee is Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, and in this Sunday's Boston Globe I take a look at the influence that Webster's Third (or more succinctly, "W3") has had on the world of lexicography since it was first published in 1961. The Scripps Bee is an annual reminder of how much W3 is still with us. As the source of all of the bee words, it's the competitive speller's bible — all 2,800 pages of it. Indeed, Roy admitted after winning the championship that she had read through the whole thing cover to cover... twice.

Along with the spellings and pronunciations, we also heard W3's definitions read aloud by Dr. Jacques Bailly, the bee's official pronouncer. W3 definitions are often a bit, shall we say, tortuous. It's quite remarkable that these knotty chunks of dictionary-ese were being recited on national television for the delectation of the masses. (The bee's prime-time finals have been on ABC for the past several years, though this time they were moved to ESPN to make way for Game 2 of the NBA Finals.)

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large, was on hand for the Scripps Bee and marveled at how the competition has become "a kind of recitation of Webster's Third." "Even people who work with dictionaries every day don't hear the definitions read aloud so systematically," Sokolowski said. "It forms a kind of practical poetry, with familiar rhythms and cadences."

I caught up with Sokolowski last week at the biennial conference of the Dictionary Society of North America, held this year at McGill University in Montreal. On the first night of the conference, the DSNA commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of W3, and Sokolowski did the honors of cutting two dictionary-shaped cakes for the celebration.

It's an important milestone to mark in the history of dictionary-making — and not just because Merriam-Webster has yet to publish a fourth edition of their unabridged flagship. (W3 has been enriched with addenda over the years, but work on a brand-new edition only began in earnest in 2008, with no definite publication date yet set for the much-anticipated W4.)

As I describe in the Boston Globe column, W3 pioneered what has been called the "single-statement rule": as decreed by the dictionary's editor Philip Gove, every definition had to consist of one phrase, starting with a general category (or genus) followed by various distinguishing features (or differentiae). Punctuation is kept to a minimum. Anne Soukhanov, a noted lexicographer who got her start at Merriam-Webster in 1970 as an apprentice to Gove, says that the dictionary's defining style set the tone not just in Springfield but "probably for any future print-product unabridged, regardless of publisher, if the publisher wants to cover the entire spectrum of American English in a single door-stopping volume."

Some of W3's definitions, truth be told, seem a bit ridiculous with fifty years of hindsight. Those Govian single phrases can be quite elaborate, straining the limits of acceptable English grammatical structure. I asked the lexicographers gathered last week in Montreal about their favorite examples of W3's "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to defining, and two stood out in particular: the definitions for door and hotel. So hold on to your seats — here they are:

door: a movable piece of firm material or a structure supported usually along one side and swinging on pivots or hinges, sliding along a groove, rolling up and down, revolving as one of four leaves, or folding like an accordion by means of which an opening may be closed or kept open for passage into or out of a building, room, or other covered enclosure or a car, airplane, elevator, or other vehicle

hotel: a building of many rooms chiefly for overnight accommodation of transients and several floors served by elevators, usually with a large open street-level lobby containing easy chairs, with a variety of compartments for eating, drinking, dancing, exhibitions, and group meetings (as of salesmen or convention attendants), with shops having both inside and street-side entrances and offering for sale items (as clothes, gifts, candy, theater tickets, travel tickets) of particular interest to a traveler, or providing personal services (as hairdressing, shoe shining), and with telephone booths, writing tables and washrooms freely available

Whew! "Even though we can laugh at door or hotel," Sokolowski told me, "the premise that the definitions are written from the perspective of someone completely unfamiliar with the word and what it signifies is itself a philosophical position that is admirable when expanded to include nearly half a million words." He added, "This strikes me as very Govian, and very modern." So raise your glass to the memory of Gove and his fellow W3-ers for giving us such a defining work in the history of lexicography.

[Update: The Boston Globe column is available online here.]

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Sukanya Roy won this year's epic spelling showdown.
Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer previews his Dictionary Society talk.
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