Webster's Dictionary

Missing image
1888 advertisement for Webster's Dictionary

Webster's Dictionary is a common title given to English language dictionaries in the United States, deriving its name from American lexicographer Noah Webster. In America, the phrase Webster's has become a genericized trademark for dictionaries. Although Merriam-Webster dictionaries are descended from those of the original purchasers of Noah Webster's work, many other dictionaries bear his name, such as those by the publishers Random House and John Wiley & Sons.


19th and early 20th century editions

Noah Webster
Noah Webster

Noah Webster, the author of extremely popular readers and spelling-books for schools, published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806. In it, he introduced features that would be a hallmark of future editions such as American spellings (center rather than centre, honor rather than honour, program rather than programme, etc.) and including technical terms from the arts and sciences rather than confining his dictionary to literary words. He spent the next two decades working to expand his dictionary.

In 1828, at the age of 70, Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language in two quarto volumes containing 70,000 entries. Webster's assistant, and later chief competitor, Joseph Emerson Worcester, published an abridgment in 1829. Webster edited a Revised Edition, with the help of his son, William G. Webster, published 1840-41, the primary change being the addition of several thousand new words.

Upon Webster's death in 1843, the unsold books and all rights to the copyright and name "Webster" were purchased by brothers George and Charles Merriam, who then hired Webster's son-in-law Chauncey A. Goodrich, a professor at Yale College, to oversee revisions. Goodrich's New and Revised Edition appeared on September 24, 1847, and a Revised and Extended Edition in 1859, which added a section of illustrations indexed to the text. His revisions remained close to Webster's work, although removing what later editors referred to as his "excresenceces."

In response to Joseph Worcester's groundbreaking dictionary of 1860, the G. & C. Merriam Company created an significantly revised edition, retaining the title American Dictionary of the English Language. It was edited by Yale editor Noah Porter and published in 1864 and contained 114,000 entries. It was sometimes referred to as the Webster-Mahn edition, because it featured revisions by Dr. C. A. F. Mahn, who replaced unsupportable etymologies which had been based on Webster's attempt to conform to Biblical interpretations of the history of language. It was the first edition to largely overhaul Noah Webster's work, and the first to be known as the Unabridged. Later printings added appendices, a Pronouncing Biographical Dictionary in 1879 and a Pronouncing Gazeteer in 1884.

Porter also edited the next edition, Webster's International Dictionary, an expansion of the American, published in 1890 and containing 175,000 entries. The name was changed because the publisher wished to reflect the wide authority the work had throughout the English-speaking world and that it was no longer solely an "American" dictionary. The dictionary was published with a Supplement in 1900, which added 25,000 entries.

The Merriam Company issued a complete revision in 1909, Webster's New International Dictionary, edited by William Torey Harris and F. Sturges Allen. Vastly expanded, it covered over 400,000 entries, and double the number of illustrations. A new format feature, the divided page, was designed to save space by including a section of words below the line at the bottom of each page, six columns of very fine print, devoted to such items as rarely used, obsolete, and foreign words, abbreviations, and variant spellings. Notable improvement was made in the treatment and number of discriminated synonyms, comparisons of subtle shades of meaning. Also added twenty-page chart comparing their pronunciations with those offered by six other major dictionaries.

In 1934, the work was revised and expanded for its Second Edition, popularly known as Webster's Second, edited by William Allen Neilson and Thamas A. Knott. Early printings contain the famous lexicographic error dord. The book was five inches (130 mm) thick and contained nearly 3,400 pages, including introductory sections. Some versions added another 400 page supplement called A Reference History of the World, dated chronologies "from earliest times to the present." The editors claim over 600,000 entries, the largest in any dictionary to date; however, this includes multitudes of proper names and newly added lists of undefined combination words. For its style and word coverage, it is still popular with many people.

Webster's Third New International

After about a decade of preparation, Merriam issued the entirely new Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (familiarly known as Webster's Third,) in September 1961, edited by Philip Babcock Gove and containing over 450,000 entries, including over 50,000 new words and as many new senses for existing words. The final definition, zyzzogeton, was written on October 17, 1960, the final etymology was done on October 26, and the final pronunciation was done on November 9. Final copy went to the typesetters, R. R. Donnelly, on December 2. The book was printed by the Riverside Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first edition had 2,726 large pages, weighed thirteen and one-half pounds (6.1 kg), and originally sold for $47.50. The changes were the most radical in the history of the Unabridged. Although it was an unprecedented masterwork of scholarship, it was met by many with disappointment and criticism.


While prior to Webster's Third, the Unabridged had been expanded with each new edition, with very minimal deletion, Gove now made sweeping deletions. He eliminated the "non-lexical matter," including the Pronouncing Gazetteer, Pronouncing Biographical Dictionary, Arbitrary Signs and Symbols, and other appendix sections, plus most other proper nouns from the main text (including mythological, Biblical, and fictional names, and the names of buildings, historical events, art works, etc.,) and over thirty picture plates. The rationale was that, while useful, these are not strictly about language. Gove justified the change by the company's publication of Webster's Biographical Dictionary in 1943 and Webster's Geographical Dictionary in 1949, and the fact that most of the subjects removed could be found in encyclopedias. However, the change bothered many users of the dictionary who were accustomed to the dictionary being a one-volume reference source.

Also removed were words which had been virtually out of use, or obsolete, for over two hundred years (except those found in major literature such as Shakespeare), rare variants, reformed spellings, self-explanatory combination words, and other items considered of little value to the general reader. The number of small text illustrations was reduced, page size increased, and print-size reduced by one-twelfth, from six point to agate (5.5 point) type. All this was considered necessary because of the large amount of new material, and Webster's Second had almost reached the limits of mechanical bookbinding. The fact that the new book had about 700 fewer pages was justified by the need to allow room for future additions.

In style and method, the dictionary bore little resemblance to earlier editions. Headwords (except for "God" and, in the reprints, trade-marks) were not capitalized. Instead of capitalizing "American," for example, the dictionary had labels next to the entries reading cap (for the noun) and usu cap (for the adjective). This allowed informative distinctions to be drawn: "gallic" is usu cap while "gallicism" is often cap and "gallicize" is sometimes cap.


Webster's Third was heavily criticized for its "permissiveness" and its refusal to take a position on what was "good" English, critics comparing it unfavorably with the Second Edition. As Herbert Morton put it, "Webster's Second was more than respected. It was accepted as the ultimate authority on meaning and usage and its preeminence was virtually unchallenged in the United States. It did not provoke controversies, it settled them." Critics charged that the dictionary was reluctant to defend standard English, for example entirely eliminating the labels "colloquial," "correct," "incorrect," "proper," "improper," "erroneous," "humorous," "jocular," "poetic," and "contemptuous," among others.

Gove's stance was an exemplar of descriptivist linguistics, aiming to represent the English language as it is actually spoken and written by most users rather than an elite making pronouncements. David M. Glixon in the Saturday Review described the new approach: "Having descended from God's throne of supreme authority, the Merriam folks are now seated around the city desk, recording like mad." Jacques Barzun said this stance made Webster's Third "the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party," done with "a dogma that far transcends the limits of lexicography." The dictionary's treatment of "ain't" was subject to particular scorn, the word receiving no more severe comment from Webster's Third than "though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain't I."

The Globe and Mail of Toronto editorialized "a dictionary's embrace of the word 'ain't' will comfort the ignorant, confer approval upon the mediocre, and subtly imply that proper English is the tool of only the snob." The New York Times editorialized that "Webster's has, it is apparent, surrendered to the permissive school that has been busily extending its beachhead in English instruction in the schools . . . reinforced the notion that good English is whatever is popular" and "can only accelerate the deterioration" of the English language. The Times'  widely respected Theodore Bernstein, its in-house style maven and a professor of journalism at Columbia University, ordered that The Times'  dictionary-of-record would continue to be the Webster's Second. (It today uses the Webster's New World Dictionary published by John Wiley.) Garry Wills in the National Review opined the new dictionary "has all the modern virtues. It is big, expensive, and ugly. It should be a great success."

Criticism of the dictionary spurred the creation of the American Heritage Dictionary, where usage notes were determined by a panel of expert writers, commentators, and speakers.

Revisions and updates

Since the 1961 publication of the Third, Merriam-Webster has reprinted the main text of the dictionary with only minor corrections. To add new words, they created an Addenda Section in 1966, included in the front matter, which was expanded in 1971, 1976, 1981, 1986, 1993, and 2002. However, the rate of additions has been much slower than it had been throughout previous hundred years.

Following the purchase of Merriam-Webster by Encyclopędia Britannica, Inc. in 1964, a three volume version was issued for many years as a supplement to the encyclopedia. At the end of volume three, this edition included the Britannica World Language Dictionary, 474 pages of translations between English and French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Yiddish.

Although the time between new editions previously ranged between nineteen and twenty-seven years, after forty-four years Merriam-Webster has not revealed any plans to publish a new edition of their Unabridged.

The Collegiate Dictionary

Merriam-Webster introduced its Collegiate Dictionary in 1898 and the series is now in its 11th edition. Since the publication of Webster's International in 1890, two Collegiate editions have been issued as abridgements each of their Unabridged editions.

By the 9th edition, the Collegiate had adopted changes which distinguish it as a separate entity rather than an abridgement of the Third New International. Some proper names had been returned to the word list, including names of Knights of the Round Table. The most notable change was the Merriam innovation of including the date of the first known citation of each word to document its entry into the English language.

The name "Webster" used by others

Since the late 19th century, dictionaries bearing the name "Webster's" have been published by companies other than Merriam-Webster. Some of these were pirated reprints of Noah Webster's work, some were revisions by others. One such revision was Webster's Imperial Dictionary, based on John Ogilvie's Imperial Dictionary, itself an expansion of Noah Webster's American Dictionary.

As a result of lawsuits filed by Merriam, American courts ruled that "Webster's" entered the public domain when the Unabridged did, in 1889 (G. & C. Merriam Co. v. Ogilvie, 159 Fed. 638 (1908)) and another court ruled in 1917 that it entered the public domain in 1834 when Noah Webster's 1806 dictionary's copyright lapsed. Thus, Webster's became a genericized trademark and others were free to use the name on their own works.

Since then, use of the name "Webster" has been rampant. Merriam-Webster goes to great pains to remind dictionary-buyers that it alone is the heir to Noah Webster. The issue is more complicated than that, however. Throughout the 20th century, some non-Merriam editions, such as Webster's New Universal, were closer to Webster's work than modern Merriam-Webster editions. This is because Merriam's progressive revisions came to have little in common with their original source, while the Universal, for example, was minimally revised and remained largely out of date. It may be argued, though, that Merriam lived up to Noah Webster's legacy by being progressive, as he was in his time. (see also)

So many dictionaries of varied size and quality have been called Webster's that the name no longer has any special meaning. But due to the fact that many people still trust the name, it continues to be a powerful marketing tool. In recent years, even established dictionaries with no direct link to Noah Webster have adopted the name, adding to the confusion. Random House dictionaries are now called, Random House Webster's, and Microsoft's Encarta World English Dictionary is now Encarta Webster's Dictionary. As further proof that you can't judge a book by its title, the dictionary now called Webster's New Universal no longer uses the text referred to in the previous paragraph but is a commissioned version of the Random House Dictionary.


Noah Webster's main competitor was Joseph Worcester, whose 1830 Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language brought accusations of plagiarism from Webster. The rivalry was carried on by Merriam after Webster's death, in what is often referred to as the Dictionary Wars. After Worcester's death in 1865, revision of his Dictionary of the English Language was soon discontinued and it eventually went out of print.

The American edition of Charles Annandale's four volume revision of the Imperial Dictionary, published in 1883 by the Century Company, was more comprehensive than the Unabridged. The Century Dictionary, an expansion of the Imperial first published from 1889-1891, covered a larger vocabulary until the publication of Webster's Second in 1934, after the Century has ceased publication.

In 1894 came Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary an attractive one volume counterpart to Webster's International. The expanded New Standard of 1913 was a worthy challenge to the New International, and remained a major competitor for many years. However, Funk and Wagnalls never revised the work, reprinting it virtually unchanged for over 50 years, while Merriam published two major revisions.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which published its complete first edition in 1933, challenged Merriam in scholarship, though not in the marketplace due to its size. The New International editions continued to offer words and features not covered by Oxford, and vice versa, and it wasn't until the 1980s, when Oxford published its Supplements and Second Edition, that the OED clearly overtook Merriam's leadership in the field.

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, several college dictionaries, notably the American College Dictionary and (non-Merriam) Webster's New World Dictionary, entered the market along-side the Collegiate. Among larger dictionaries during this period was (non-Merriam) Webster's Universal Dictionary (also published as Webster's Twentieth Century Dictionary,) which traced its roots to Noah Webster and called itself "unabridged," but had less than half the vocabulary and paled in scholarship against the Merriam editions.

After the disappointing reception of Webster's Third New International in the 1960s, the market was open for new challengers. Random House adapted its college dictionary by adding more illustrations and large numbers of proper names, increasing its print size and page thickness, and giving it a heavy cover. In 1966, it was published as a new "unabridged" dictionary. It was expanded in 1987, but still covered no more than half the actual vocabulary of Webster's Third.

The American Heritage Publishing Co., highly critical of Webster's Third, failed in an attempt to buy out Merriam-Webster and determined to create its own dictionary. In 1969, they issued a college-sized dictionary, which has since been expanded and become one of the most popular English dictionaries. Now in its fourth edition, it is only slightly greater in vocabulary than the Collegiate, but appears much larger and has the appeal of many pictures and other features.

Other medium-sized dictionaries have since entered the market, including the New Oxford American and the (non-Merriam) Encarta Webster's, while Merriam-Webster has not attempted to compete by issuing a similar edition. All of these offer college editions, but the Collegiate is the largest and most popular.

Online editions

The latest edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary can be searched at the company's website (http://www.merriam-webster.com). The updated Third New International is available online by subscription.

The dictionary's 1913 update of the 1909 New International has in modern times been used in various free online resources, as its copyright lapsed and it became public domain. Some of these resources include:

There are also online resources based on the 1913 version that aren't completely free, such as:

Both the Collegiate and the 1913 Unabridged are searched by the free dictionary search engine OneLook.


  • Herbert C. Morton. The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbit, editors. Dictionaries and That Dictionary. Chicago: Scott Foresman, 1962.

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (https://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Art)
    • Architecture (https://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Architecture)
    • Cultures (https://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Cultures)
    • Music (https://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Music)
    • Musical Instruments (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/List_of_musical_instruments)
  • Biographies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Biographies)
  • Clipart (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Clipart)
  • Geography (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Geography)
    • Countries of the World (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Countries)
    • Maps (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Maps)
    • Flags (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Flags)
    • Continents (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Continents)
  • History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History)
    • Ancient Civilizations (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Ancient_Civilizations)
    • Industrial Revolution (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Industrial_Revolution)
    • Middle Ages (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Middle_Ages)
    • Prehistory (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Prehistory)
    • Renaissance (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Renaissance)
    • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
    • United States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/United_States)
    • Wars (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Wars)
    • World History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History_of_the_world)
  • Human Body (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Human_Body)
  • Mathematics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Mathematics)
  • Reference (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Reference)
  • Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Science)
    • Animals (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Animals)
    • Aviation (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Aviation)
    • Dinosaurs (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Dinosaurs)
    • Earth (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Earth)
    • Inventions (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Inventions)
    • Physical Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Physical_Science)
    • Plants (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Plants)
    • Scientists (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Scientists)
  • Social Studies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Social_Studies)
    • Anthropology (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Anthropology)
    • Economics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Economics)
    • Government (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Government)
    • Religion (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Religion)
    • Holidays (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Holidays)
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Solar_System)
    • Planets (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Planets)
  • Sports (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Sports)
  • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
  • Weather (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Weather)
  • US States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/US_States)


  • Home Page (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php)
  • Contact Us (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Contactus)

  • Clip Art (http://classroomclipart.com)
Personal tools