A Thing About Words

Posts From the Editors

January 17, 2013

“The Unabridged Is Coming”

defaultWhen I was told we’d be—finally, at last—undertaking work on the new Unabridged Dictionary, I snorted in disbelief. The Unabridged Dictionary has been such a long-anticipated and distant event that we have a cartoon up in the office of a doomsday prophet, complete with hairshirt, carrying a sign that says, “The Unabridged Is Coming.” That cartoon is about 15 years old, and even when it first appeared, it was already an old joke.


So to have this dictionary—finally, at last—under way is a bit surreal, a bit uncanny, though we’re all too busy with actually writing this dictionary to reflect on how surreal and uncanny is it. Our Director of Defining, Steve Perrault, puts it best: “…it’s possible to talk about doing something, without doing it, for so long that you begin to feel that you’ll never actually do it. And then [you] do it anyway.”


You’ll notice I said “busy with actually writing this dictionary.” About that…


In the world of dead-tree lexicography, we live, move, and have our being in the production schedule. This is a gargantuan spreadsheet that plots every single move that every single editor will make for one book. We don’t measure our deadlines in days or weeks; we measure them in years. But the production schedule has a hard-and-fast “send to printer” date at the end of it. Editors put their initials in the “DONE” column and breathe: the book is put to bed, and we can all start to catch up on other tasks which have been set aside for months, like correspondence or sleep.


But this dictionary is sui generis, a critter of a different color: this dictionary is the first in Merriam-Webster history that has no “DONE” column at the end of its production schedule. We will be updating this dictionary—this very one—until we are each called home to that great Reference Library in the sky. As if the task of updating one of America’s most famous and infamous dictionaries wasn’t difficult enough, now we will be doing it forever.


We aren’t going to lie: it’s daunting. But more than that, it’s exciting. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, which is not hampered by dodgy bindings, we get to write the dictionary that every lexicographer and verbophile has ever wanted: a dictionary that is easy to use, up-to-date, exhaustive in coverage, and won’t cost a king’s ransom. A dictionary that is more like the language it records: living, breathing, constantly changing.


Does this sound like a shill? It’s truly not. The Unabridged Dictionary is the dictionary that every one of the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster has been dying to write since we each took up our lexicographical calling. There is very little hubbub in our office, as lexicographers are preternaturally quiet, but what hubbub there has been has been excited hubbub. Our senior etymologist has already begun preparing extensive notes for as many entries as he can get at. Others have begun pulling and updating usage paragraphs. New words that don’t yet have the evidence to merit entry into our other abridged dictionaries are being shunted into the Unabridged as fast as we can proofread. New labels, new dates of first written usage, new example sentences and quotations, new supplemental information notes that explain finer points of context, usage, and register—all of it, in every piece, is so inspiring that editors actually get up from their desks and speak to each other in tones of quiet, satisfied wonder. One of my colleagues said what we all have been thinking: “I feel like this is the dictionary I’ve been waiting my entire professional life to write.” Steve, never one to mince words, puts it best: “We have the opportunity to reconsider our approach to everything, and at this point in my career, I regard that as a very welcome development.”


We hope you, too, regard it as a very welcome development. It has taken us almost 50 years of planning, roughly 10,000 cups of coffee (so far), the Internet, and one very finely crafted note (if I do say so myself) mentioning a terrible episode of “Happy Days” to get where we are today. It’s a momentous occasion. And probably high time we took that cartoon down from over the coffeemaker.

Kory Stamper, associate editor, has worked on dozens of Merriam-Webster products. She writes, lectures on English, and is proud to have defined both "bodice ripper" and "apocalypse" for the Unabridged Dictionary. Follow @KoryStamper on Twitter.

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