Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage
is a dictionary. It is not a usage guide. It is not Fowler, or Partridge, or Bernstein (nor, at 799 pages, is it exactly concise, but that's another matter). Unlike those eminent watchdogs of the English language, the editors of this volume are record-keepers, chronicling the way language is used, not the way it should be used. Based on Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage
, this book cites the classic English-language specialists generously but finds its true course by observing actual contemporary usage. Take the word discomfit
, for example, the meaning of which (to thwart, foil, or frustrate) is staunchly defended in many usage guides. Sorry, says Merriam-Webster. Their survey says that the use of the word as a synonym to discomfort
is so entrenched as to have become "thoroughly established" as the most prevalent meaning. Though the editors of this book are more reporters than campaigners, their prose is eminently readable, charming, and even, like that of the best usage enforcers, quirky. For instance, the word data
, they claim, is a "queer fish," while errata
"leads a double life," and yclept
is "peculiar-looking." --Jane Steinberg
About the Author
The Merriam brothers desired a continuity of editorship that would link Noah Webster's efforts with their own editions, so they selected Chauncey A. Goodrich, Webster's son-in-law and literary heir, who had been trained in lexicography by Webster himself, to be their editor in chief. Webster's son William also served as an editor of that first Merriam-Webster dictionary, which was published on September 24, 1847.
Although Webster's work was honored, his big dictionaries had never sold well. The 1828 edition was priced at a whopping $20; in 13 years its 2,500 copies had not sold out. Similarly, the 1841 edition, only slightly more affordable at $15, moved slowly. Assuming that a lower price would increase sales, the Merriams introduced the 1847 edition at $6, and although Webster's heirs initially questioned this move, extraordinary sales that brought them $250,000 in royalties over the ensuing 25 years convinced them that the Merriams' decision had been abundantly sound.
The first Merriam-Webster dictionary was greeted with wide acclaim. President James K. Polk, General Zachary Taylor (hero of the Mexican War and later president himself), 31 U.S. senators, and other prominent people hailed it unreservedly. In 1850 its acceptance as a resource for students began when Massachusetts ordered a copy for every school and New York placed a similar order for 10,000 copies to be used in schools throughout the state. Eventually school use would spread throughout the country. In becoming America's most trusted authority on the English language, Merriam-Webster dictionaries had taken on a role of public responsibility demanded of few other publishing companies.