Freelance editing has made me polyamorous when it comes to the dictionary. I always secretly loved my first dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, but as a newspaper copyeditor, my loyalty was to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. As a freelancer, I am free—even required—to play the lexicographic field. And with the recent proliferation of electronic versions of dictionaries, it’s easy to spread my affection.
For most decisions on spelling or usage, it’s OK to grab any dictionary at hand. But that approach may not work for a smaller subset of usage questions that are commonly disputed. For those issues, dictionaries can take surprisingly differing approaches.
The Associated Press calls for Webster’s New World College as it dictionary of choice, a choice based at least partly on the controversy surrounding Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, which was seen as overly permissive when it was published in 1961 by G. & C. Merriam (which later changed its name to Merriam-Webster). Most American newspapers follow AP’s lead, as do many smaller periodicals, public relations firms, and marketing teams.
Webster’s New World seemed at risk of becoming a dead dictionary. Its previous publisher offered it for sale, so it has lacked updates or a useful online presence. But now the title has joined Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher of the American Heritage Dictionary. The editors of the AP Stylebook have said that a long-overdue update to Webster’s New World is in the works, and a fifth edition—not due out for another year—is available for preorder on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website.
Webster’s New World College competes directly with Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. The dictionaries share the “Webster” name, a similar size, and similar cover design and typography. Merriam-Webster’s titles can claim lineage to Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, but the Webster name has been ruled generic. The Chicago Manual of Style prefers the Merriam-Webster Collegiate, and it is the dictionary that publishers most often turn to.
Style choices become a bit easier when one dictionary is preferred as a matter of a publication’s style. But copyeditors aren’t providing the full story if they, for example, change “goodbye” to “good-bye” with nary a note of explanation.
Four dictionaries sit on my bookshelf, six are on my iPhone, one resides in the dock of my MacBook. I view several online, two of them by subscription. I dabble in dictionaries enough to know that there is no such thing as “the dictionary.” Spellings differ, definitions differ, usage guidelines vary. We miss the bigger picture if we use just one.