Dictionary Firm Has `Mindset' on Words

WHERE do dictionaries come from? From banks of file cabinets filled with millions of 3-by-5 cards. Fourteen and a half million of them here at the Merriam-Webster Company, whose staid, two-story brick headquarters nestles inconspicuously on Federal Street among trees, housing projects, and the Springfield Technical Community College.

Although other dictionary publishers also use the Webster name, the company considers itself the true inheritor of Noah Webster's legacy, having bought the unsold copies of Webster's "An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged" in 1843, along with rights to publish revised editions.

The revisions have gone on incessantly, with this spring's publication of the 10th edition of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1,559 pp., $21.95), the latest of the company's progeny. In the 10 years since the last edition, around 1 million citations - new words and new usages - had been added to the file drawers. At least 100 publications, from newspapers to scientific journals, come into the building daily, and the editors' scissors and highlighters are never idle.

With the rapid pace of linguistic evolution today, "We feel justified in coming to the dictionary-buying public and saying, `If your book is older than 10 years, you're out of date,' " says Frederick Mish, editor in chief at Merriam-Webster.

Actually, some revision goes on year to year, with new words being added to production runs as the need arises. Words that move quickly into widespread usage - like "ayatollah" and "AIDS" - have entered the dictionary this way.

But a couple of years ago, Mr. Mish says, it become clear that critical mass had been reached for a new edition. What followed was a concentrated two-year period that embraced some 5 million editorial decisions, since each of the 1 million elements in the new book - everything from the wording of definitions to etymological notes to illustrations - has to be checked and rechecked by four to five editors.

The cards that contain the raw materials for a new dictionary are low-tech holdovers in an electronic age, a little like the reporter's spiral notebook. Every editor's desk at Merriam-Webster also has a computer terminal, and information about words and usages is entered daily by a cadre of "inputters" (a word that hasn't made it into the Collegiate yet, though the 10th edition notes that "inputting," in the computer sense, was first used in 1946).

DICTIONARIES themselves will inexorably move toward the screen, a trend begun by computer spell checkers and usage guides. James Withgott, vice president and associate publisher at Merriam-Webster, says the company will have an electronic version of the 10th Collegiate, to run on IBM's "windows" platform, by year's end.

The progress of a word toward canonization in a dictionary is a matter close to a lexicographer's heart. Asked about the word "mindset," presumably a fairly recent arrival, Mish launched a 20-minute investigation that took us to various file drawers and back editions. Cites for the word go back to 1926, when it appeared in an educational journal. A 1929 reference took note of "mindset" as a word in need of better definition so it could become "intelligible to the laity."

When did Merriam-Webster accept the word? In 1934, with a definition ("a strong current of the mind in one direction - a fixed or firm state of the mind") that still serves. Mish observes, however, that the editors are still "marking" the word frequently, indicating that the meaning of "mindset" is not set even 59 years later.

While some words hang around and evolve for decades, and perhaps centuries, others don't make it from one edition to the next. E. Ward Gilman, a senior editor and usage specialist, gives a couple of examples of "fad words" that faded quickly from his dictionary's pages: "eco-freak" and "dating bar."

One possibly faddish word that did make it this time at Merriam-Webster is "herstory," history from a feminist viewpoint. That one, says Mr. Gilman, caused some debate.

New words are always competing to get in, and many have passionate advocates. The editors have heard from readers miffed because "latte" (a kind of coffee popular in West Coast cities) was left out. They have also heard from the champions of "tiramisu," an Italian dessert that's catching on with at least a few Americans.

"A flood of imported words are beating on the door to get into the English language," Gilman says, and many are food terms. Computer science and medicine are other prolific word generators.

The editors do not catch the scent of a new word or usage only by poring over print. "It's always nice to keep your ears open when you're around teenagers," says Kathleen Doherty, an associate editor.

But what about maintaining the boundaries of good usage, to say nothing of civil speech? That's not their job, agree the Merriam-Webster editors. They just monitor what people are writing and saying and provide a reference on the subject.

"You don't have to be a policeman for the language, because the language takes care of itself," Gilman says.

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