Here at Black Lake, as in many other U.S. companies and institutions, we use the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as our standard for the spelling and definition of English words. It’s the ultimate source of all the vocabulary used in our work, and whenever there’s a question, we default to Merriam-Webster. But how did this dictionary come to be a common standard? Let’s take a look at some history to find out.
It turns out that the dictionary dates back to Noah Webster (1758-1843), a master lexicographer and linguist who was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up during the Revolutionary War. Webster was an advocate of the Constitutional Convention, and he wanted to cultivate a distinctly American culture and language to set the new nation apart from Europe.
This led him to dedicate his considerable talents to writing A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806. With 37,000 entries, this tome was the first truly American dictionary. He later followed up this effort with his magnum opus, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828. Webster actually learned twenty-six languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit, so he could work on the etymologies of the words in his dictionary. The volume was a bold declaration of America’s linguistic independence, and it set a new standard for American English.
Why was this dictionary so important? Well, for one, it included words commonly being used by Americans in that day and age, formally recognizing them as standard English words for the first time. These included uniquely American flora and fauna (skunk, opossum, hickory), American food (chowder), and words that had been coined in the colonies (surf, deliverable, unmarketable, and, appropriately, Americanize).
Webster was also fond of innovating when he thought it would improve the language. One of his pet projects was spelling reform. Have you ever noticed how inconsistent English spelling is, and how hard it is to learn? So did Webster, and he wanted to fix it. He sought to reform and simplify spelling based on etymology, logic, pronunciation, and his own personal sense of aesthetics. This largely explains the present-day differences between British and American spellings. While many of his reforms are still in use in America today, some never caught on:
- musick vs. music
- centre vs. center
- plough vs. plow
- humour vs. humor
- gaol vs. jail
- travelled vs. traveled
- masque vs. mask
- women vs. wimmen
- determine vs. determin
- machine vs. masheen
- daughter vs. dawter
- island vs. iland
- believe vs. beleev
- grotesque vs. grotesk
You may have noticed that up to this point I’ve left out the “Merriam” part of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. What’s up with that? Well, Webster continued to update update his dictionary until his death, and the last edition he personally worked on was published in 1841. At that point, the leftover copies were bought up by the G. & C. Merriam Company, owned by brothers George and Charles Merriam. This Massachusetts-based printing and bookselling company also acquired the rights to continue producing revised editions of the dictionary, which they’ve been doing ever since. For example, these gems were added to the dictionary just last year:
- big data
The G. & C. Merriam Company carried on revising and publishing Webster’s dictionary, building up huge amounts of brand equity as it was recognized as the highest-quality and most authoritative American English dictionary in the nineteenth century. Everyone lives happily ever after, right? Well, not quite. Copyright and trademark difficulties at the dawn of the twentieth century resulted in many other publishers gaining the legal right to use the name “Webster” to market their dictionaries. Consequently, the public was confused about what separated one “Webster’s dictionary” from another. It was harder to make the case for Merriam’s unique expertise, authority, and historical pedigree. In short, their brand equity had been diluted. In an attempt to turn the tide, the G. & C. Merriam Company changed its name to Merriam-Webster, Inc., in 1982. They even tried using the tagline “Not just Webster. Merriam-Webster.”
The moral of the story: keep your brand well differentiated from similar brands, preventing your brand equity from being diluted.
So, that’s the story of Noah Webster and his dictionary. For all its brand problems, it’s still the widely-recognized standard for American English. I highly recommend checking out Merriam-Webster’s free app and website. You might not need it to check spellings, since most word processors have spell-checkers, but it’s great for finding the definition of a word you’ve just heard for the first time. I also love it for its handy thesaurus feature, which is great for finding just the right word for the job. I use it to track down more precise alternative words (perhaps for one of the alliterative schemes we’re always dreaming up here at Black Lake), closely-related words, or even antonyms. Give it a try, and tap into nearly two hundred years of American linguistic heritage.