The Changing Definition of a Dictionary: Merriam-Webster Charts a New Course Online

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More than 50 years after it was published, Webster's dictionary is getting a major update.
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What is the dictionary definition of the word "dictionary"? If you flip open Merriam-Webster, you'll find several entries:

  • A reference book that contains words listed in alphabetical order and that gives information about the words' meanings, forms, pronunciations, etc.
  • A reference book that lists in alphabetical order the words of one language and shows their meanings or translations in a different language
  • A reference book that lists in alphabetical order words that relate to a particular subject along with their definitions and uses

Soon those definitions will be due for an update. More than 50 years after it was published, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged—the book we all think of when we think if "Webster's dictionary"—is getting a major update.

What's unusual about this revision is that when the editing is through, Merriam-Webster's will no longer be a reference book. Instead, its database will live entirely online.

Stefan Fatsis is the author of "Word Freak," a book about the subculture of Scrabble. He takes a deep dive in to the history—and future—of Webster's dictionary in a new piece for Slate. 

“Merriam-Webster is the last American dictionary company left,” says Fatsis. “Random House, American Heritage—all of the big dictionary names that we’re familiar with—they’ve all just allowed their staffs to wither.”

Merriam-Webster, which Fatsis calls the last “full throated, fully staffed” dictionary company in the United States, employs about 40 full time editorial staff members. On the other hand, American Heritage only has four lexicographers working full time.

“They’re the last flag carriers for an industry that has been in decline,” he says.

Fatsis says that dictionaries are moving targets that are constantly changing, and it’s been that way since the beginning. In 1879, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), James Murray, appealed to the English-speaking and English-reading public to submit words and definitions for his planned dictionary.

“What that demonstrates is that lexicography, the study of words and the creation of definitions defining words, is something that is imbued in the culture and the public,” says Fatsis. “We’re all curious about where words come from and what they mean. How we get to the point where somebody codifies what a definition is, that has become a profession the last 200-plus years.”

Noah Webster, the first American lexicographer, published his first dictionary in 1806. In 1828, Webster released another that was considered the best dictionary since Samuel Johnson's “Dictionary of the English Language,” which was first published in April 1755.

“[Webster’s] was sort of the American dictionary, and that’s sort of where this tradition and this scholarship stems from,” says Fatsis. “That’s why Merriam-Webster is at the forefront of trying to figure out lexicography in the digital age.”

Internally, Fatsis says that executives at Merriam-Webster view themselves as a digital content publisher—the company generates more revenue from online advertising and online subscriptions to the unabridged dictionary than they do from selling books.

“[Merriam-Webster President John] Morse said to me that a dictionary is a database—it’s not a book anymore,” says Fatsis. “He’s comfortable with that. There isn’t so much nostalgia inside Merriam-Webster for the idea of the print book.”

Fatsis says that it’s “an incredibly vibrant and exciting time” for the study of words because lexicographers have more freedom to practice their craft online than they do in print. But the internet also presents its own set of new and unique challenges.

“This is all about search engine optimization—it’s not about URLs anymore,” he says. “In the mid-90s, Merriam looked into acquiring Dictionary.com. But when they looked into it, they discovered that two guys had acquired it six weeks before they did.”

Fatsis says that dictionary companies are now competing with digital behemoths like Google, and cultural shifts in behavior, since many people simply use an online search to find words they’re looking to define.

“That’s the challenge that Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and the OED are facing in this industry,” he says. “How do they persuade people that they still need the expertise, that they still need the cache, and that they still need this trusted name in lexicography?”

Some lexicographers believe that society no longer needs traditional defining bodies like Merriam-Webster. Erin McKean, founder of the online dictionary Wordnik and a former lexicographer at OED, told Fatsis that dictionaries should take a page from the old days and rely more heavily on crowdsourcing the public.

“My job is not to decide what a word is. That is your job,” she told an audience at a Ted Talk in November. “Everybody who speaks English decides together what’s a word and what’s not a word.”

Though some lexicographers like McKean think crowdsourcing is the future, Fatsis says that individuals do still want trusted resources like Merriam-Webster.

“People do want that authority,” he says. “There’s this monolithic idea of ‘the dictionary,’ even though there are lots of different dictionaries. The trick for publishers like Merriam is how do they find the sweet spot between Noah Webster and the rigid formulation of what a dictionary definition is, and the lexicographic free-for-all of something like Urban Dictionary or Wiktionary?”