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Lexical Leavings

by Tom Gally



Today I received the just-published Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. A long-time bestseller,* the Collegiate was one of the first adult dictionaries I used as a child. I had the eighth edition in my dorm room in college, and my copy of the 1993 tenth edition is well worn from use over the past ten years.

I use the Collegiate mostly for checking spellings and pronunciations, not for its definitions. I've worked on several publications, including a recently completed bilingual dictionary, that referred to the Collegiate on spelling issues, and its multiple pronunciations for many words have sometimes come in handy when I've been asked about the "correct" American pronunciation of a word. But its definitions are its weak point, and many of its competitors define words more clearly and completely.

A few notes from my first hour with the dictionary:

run-up is still labeled "Chiefly Brit" (see 89).

online is now spelled as one word; in the tenth edition, it was "on-line."

There is no entry for what with, a common phrase that a correspondent recently pointed out to me is missing from some other dictionaries as well.

The usage label at nigger, a troublesome word for American dictionaries, has been modified slightly:
Tenth edition: 1: a black person -- usu. taken to be offensive
Eleventh edition: 1: usu offensive; see usage paragraph below: a black person
The usage paragraph, which describes the word as "expressive of racial hatred and bigotry," is unchanged.

The definition for Oriental has been changed from "a member of one of the indigenous peoples of the Orient" to "sometimes offensive: ASIAN; esp: one who is a native of east Asia or is of east Asian descent."

The definition of feather, noted by Sidney I. Landau in both editions of Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, is unchanged:
any of the light horny epidermal outgrowths that form the external covering of the body of birds and that consist of a shaft bearing on each side a series of barbs which bear barbules which in turn bear barbicels commonly ending in hooked hamuli and interlocking with the barbules of an adjacent barb to link the barbs into a continuous vane
(The ninth edition, as quoted by Landau, began the definition with "one of...." It seems to have been changed to "any of..." for the tenth and eleventh.)

Abbreviations are now listed in the body of the dictionary rather than in an appendix, but foreign words and phrases, biographical names, and geographical names are still separate.

I compared the left column on page 787 with the corresponding entries in the tenth edition. There were only a handful of changes: entries were added for mid-ocean ridge and mifepristone; the earliest date for midweek was changed from 1707 to 1706; the cross-reference "compare NURSE-MIDWIFE" was added to the first sense of midwife; a citation was replaced by a shorter phrase example in the entry for mien; might was newly identified as a "verbal auxiliary"; and a phrase example was removed from the entry for the noun might, reducing the entry's length by one line. Otherwise, everything seemed the same, including the semiarchaically phrased definition of miff: "to put into an ill humor: OFFEND."

The definition of fair was expanded (see 32):
Tenth edition: 10: sufficient but not ample: ADEQUATE <a fair understanding of the work>
Eleventh edition: 10a: sufficient but not ample: ADEQUATE <a fair understanding of the work>  b: moderately numerous, large, or significant <takes a fair amount of time>
The page format is basically unchanged, but the lines are a tad longer in the new edition, so some lines wrap later than they did in the previous edition. Even though the number of pages has been increased by 64, the book itself is slightly thinner than the previous edition, indicating lighter paper.

No entry for body shot (see 54).
(June 28, 2003)

*The Collegiate spells this "best seller." American Heritage, Random House Webster's, Webster's New World, and Encarta all use the spelling "bestseller," with some noting "best seller" as an alternative. The New York Times uses "best seller," the Los Angeles Times "bestseller." Google searches for phrases like "book was a best seller [or bestseller]" yield about equal hit counts for either spelling.