The office of Merriam-Webster has existed in essentially the same spot, in Springfield, Massachusetts, since 1831. While the building has changed both inside and out in the many decades following George and Charles Merriam's establishment of their "printing and bookselling operation," the location—and much of how the editors work—has not. When I arranged to speak by phone to Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor-at-large, for this piece, he emailed that he needed to move to a conference room for our call. "We work in a silent office," he wrote.
"A silent office?" I marvel, when we speak. According to Sokolowski, there was at one point an official code of silence in place, though it may have only been held as "law" in the '50s and '60s, when the staff was larger and worked without cubicle walls between them. There remains, however, "a powerful culture of silence in the office," he explains. "Before email, communication was encouraged through a 3x5 pink piece of paper that would be carried from desk to desk (with the recipient designated by initials in the upper right-hand corner) by the secretarial staff." While such quaint traditions have gone away with the advent of email, in-person meetings are held behind closed doors, and the overall atmosphere is "very library-like. All you hear are keystrokes on computers, or very hushed conversations," among the 40-some editors who work there, Sokolowski tells me. This is practical as well as traditional, as "writing a dictionary is like taking the SAT." Sokolowski, who joined the company in 1994 when there was just one computer on the editorial floor, has essentially taken the SAT multiple times weekly for 18 years.
Traditions may die hard in the office in Springfield—the current building hails from 1938—but in the years since the company began in 1831, the dictionary business has changed drastically, expanding far beyond the matter of "simply" writing dictionaries. Merriam-Webster.com attracts more than 12 million unique visitors monthly according to Quantcast figures. Along with an array of searchable online dictionaries—aside from the main Collegiate version there's the Unabridged, Spanish-English, ESL Learner's, Medical, Children's, and others, plus the Thesaurus—the site offers a lot of the kinds of bells and whistles we've grown used to expecting in this day and age, including associated Facebook and Twitter pages. There is a clear mission for relevance beyond the print pages of the venerable old book, an attempt to incorporate the interactivity and immediacy that technology can provide. So, online, you get features like "Trend Watch," in which Sokolowski discusses words as related to current news stories—"terrorism," "servitude," and "boson" are a few recent examples. There are Top Ten Lists (Top 10 Favorite British Words, for example); the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day, to which one can subscribe via email or download as an app; interactive word quizzes; and lists of words spiking on a daily and weekly basis (the top three words in the past 24 hours at the time of this post were bigot, touché, and dolt). And there are videos featuring Sokolowski and two of his M-W.com colleagues, associate editors Kory Stamper and Emily Brewster, discussing subjects ranging from how a word gets into the dictionary to the story behind the word defenestration to how an imaginary (ghost) word ended up in one edition. "When you see [us] on these videos, that's who we are," says Sokolowski. "We really want to have our personalities coming through."
The Internet, of course, is far better at showcasing "personality" than is a printed reference book for reasons including the potential for sound. Just as you can see and hear M-W.com editors talking on videos like those mentioned above, you can hear the dictionary itself "speaking" on the site. Every definition includes a button one can click to hear the proper pronunciation (and variant pronunciations) of each word. The "voice of Merriam-Webster" is not just one person, though. There are 165,000 words in the Collegiate edition, and the pronunciations were outsourced to "a bunch of actors in L.A., because even doing 1,000 a day would take one person a calendar year," says Sokolowski. Merriam-Webster's pronunciation editor kept the hard words for himself and re-recorded a few in which he was dissatisfied with the actors' versions. He also pronounced the curse words. "I just looked up motherfucker, I'm going to play it," says Sokolowski during our phone call, and presses the sound button, saying, "Yes, that's Brian!" when the voice delivers a crisp, somehow hilarious pronunciation. Brian has since left the company, moving on to a job as associate pronouncer for the Scripps Spelling Bee. "That's definitely his voice," says Sokolowki. "He did the pronunciation for my first book, the French-English Dictionary. My voice is on a few dozen, too."
One of the features of M-W.com that's been around the longest is the Word of the Day. (I recall subscribing to it via my Hotmail account, which sheds some light onto how ancient WotD truly is.) It came into being at some point after the website was born in 1996, during what Sokolowski calls the Internet's Cretaceous Age. "This was the dawn of the way we know it today," he says. WotD now has some 650,000 subscribers.
Since those early days, the site has gotten a redesign and a growing number of fun and interactive items. Additional dictionaries have been created, like WordCentral, a free intermediate-level dictionary, and the new ESL Learner's Dictionary, which uses a simplified vocabulary of 3,000 words to define 100,000 for non-native English speakers. Then there's the massive subscription-only Unabridged Dictionary, which features 475,000 words and is behind a paywall, mostly used by academic institutions and libraries. Overall, the web business is supported by ads, and yes, "Merriam-Webster is a profitable company," says Sokolowski, "the number one language reference brand in print and the number two language reference brand online and for mobile apps."
In fact, he explains, "The Collegiate Dictionary is the best-selling book in U.S. history after the Bible. It's a tradition we're committed to maintain; [print] is by no means dead as a market. There are plenty of people like me who will always buy a book." Dictionary sales may have gone down, but website visits have gone up, and Merriam-Webster is committed to maintaining both sides of the business. Further, the digital side of the business is only expanding—Sokolowski cites 10 million downloads of the M-W.com app. "The dictionary in the most generic scope is being used more than ever," he says. "You can have it as an app; it's online while you're at work; you can have it as a print book. Book sales are down, but we're seeing an overall increase in use." The company is starting to get into the e-book game, as well—their Learner's Dictionary is the first to be produced with a free e-book instead of a CD-rom mated with the print version. That's how they're releasing the Collegiate edition too.
Arguably the most fascinating part of any dictionary, though, are the words themselves, and the stories they tell in reverse of the people and societies in search of their meanings. The Internet means, suddenly, there's a opportunity to keep track of these searches and interpret them. "Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster had had no idea if anyone would read a certain definition, but we know which words are being looked up," says Sokolowski. "It's a way to trace people's thoughts."
So, what are people thinking? Affect and effect are among the most looked-up words on any given day; other frequently searched terms include paradigm, ubiquitous, integrity, conundrum, and pragmatic. "Most of them have classical roots and slightly abstract meanings; they send people to the dictionary," he says. But you can break it down even further: People go to the dictionary for a few different reasons: for usage (as with affect and effect), for spelling (a word like fiancé), or for comprehension or definitions (with love, another frequently looked-up word, "they're not going for the spelling," says Sokolowski). Sometimes it's easy to connect a word spike to a news story, like in the case of Boson, but often it's more abstract, he says, referencing democracy and socialism. In those cases, "it's just about the zeitgeist."
An example of that is what occurred upon the death of Michael Jackson in June of 2009, which Sokolowski describes as "one of the most intense vocabulary events" in his history. People began to search for six words in sequence: stricken, resuscitate, condolences, icon, RIP, and emaciated. "Those words tell a story all by themselves," he says. Emaciated ended up being the most looked-up word for that month and the entire summer, and the second most looked-up word of the year, beaten only by admonish, which spiked after Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst against President Obama during the president's health care speech to Congress in November of that year.
As you'd expect given his business, Sokolowski has a tendency to associate words with stories. "After 9/11 the two most looked-up words were not concrete words, they were surreal and succumb," he tells me. Misogyny was looked up by many after Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut, but, interestingly, slut was not. Marriage is another common search word driven by the news, particularly when states pass "Defense of Marriage" acts, as North Carolina did in May. After all, he adds, "The question of marriage is one of definition," noting that definitions run chronologically; the first that appears is the oldest. Most recently, he says, "The Aurora shootings caused shrapnel and terrorism to spike—the former concrete and immediate, the latter broad and depressingly general. They show that sometimes words are looked up as facts and sometime words are looked up as ideas."
The word Sokolowski himself looks up the most is supercilious: "There are words that people see or hear and they think, what exactly does that mean again? I cannot seem to keep supercilious in my mind. As a consequence I don't use it that much." He pulls the page up as we talk, reminding himself that it means "coolly and patronizingly haughty."
What about this degradation in grammar, spelling, and language use overall that everyone's always worrying about given the publish-now-spellcheck-later nature of online writing? Sokolowski doesn't think people have stopped caring; in fact, he thinks it's the opposite: "We are all judged continually by the way we present ourselves with language. That goes for the written word, too. We take spelling mistakes rather seriously—look at the Romney campaign. To say that the sky is falling is a constant in culture; every generation has complained about the level of education of its successor. I'm not saying we don't have problems, but the fact is, people still use the dictionary. They still care."
As much as there's a whole new world out there, and online, that Webster and the Merriams never could have imagined, inside the building in Springfield, much remains the same as in the old days. "It's still handmade. We do the research, we do the citations. The language changes quickly because of the speed of communication, and we do the editing in front of a computer, but it's still the traditional way, faced with the word and the research and writing the definitions," says Sokolowski. "We are true to ourselves, which is to say, we've been a freestanding independent company all these years, and all we produce are dictionaries." Whether on the web or off of it, he says, "This is our job."
Images, from top: Sokolowski in front of the chronological archive of Unabridged editions; the editorial floor circa 1955, during the production of Webster's Third; an editor does research in citation files; Trend Watch; a closeup of the citation files, which feature 17 million individual words with full context and bibliography. All courtesy Merriam-Webster.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.