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John M. Morse '73
John M. Morse '73

Haverford Conversation: John M. Morse '73

As president and publisher of dictionary company Merriam-Webster John M. Morse  ’73 has a dream job for a former English major. With a staff of 40 editors tracking word usage, he gets a front line view of  how the English language evolves over time and has a hand, even,  in determining which new words will make it into the official lexicon.  But one especially enjoyable part of his work, he says, is getting to announce the dictionary company’s selection for Word of the Year each November.

This year, the choice was an easy one, he says.  So many people looked up “bailout” at Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary that it handily beat all of the other contenders.

On the shortlist with “bailout” were the similarly downbeat   “trepidation,” “precipe” and “turmoil.”  Says Morse, “There is something about the national psyche right now that is leading us to look up words that seem to suggest fear and anxiety.”

Morse took over the helm more than a decade ago at Merriam-Webster, which traces its dictionary-making roots back to 1843 when it purchased the rights to Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language.  Previously the company’s Executive Editor, Morse has been credited with embracing new technologies and helping to move Merriam-Webster into the growing world market with innovative dictionaries for people learning English as a second language.

Haverford College Communications Editor Eils Lotozo talked to Morse, who serves on the College’s Board of Managers, about what it’s like running a venerable dictionary company in the electronic age.

Eils Lotozo: How did you get into the dictionary business?

John Morse: After Haverford, I was doing my Masters degree in English at the University of Chicago and I started working summers and part-time doing editorial work for Encyclopaedia Britannica, which owns Merriam-Webster.  Then, in 1980, I came out here to Springfield [Massachusetts] to Merriam-Webster for an interview and it really was kind of love at first sight.

I guess there were a couple of things that drew me to the company.  First, being an English major, I had a real love for language.  For me, that love started back when I was a small child. I remember my grandfather reading me Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans.  Also, both of my parents were librarians, and I grew up with a reliance on and fondness for reference books.  So, working for Merriam-Webster was a chance to be involved with language and reference books at this company with a great history.  It was founded about the same time Haverford College was founded. And it’s not unlike Haverford. It’s a small, thrifty, collegial organization with a clear set of values.

EL: Along with all of those paperback and hardbound dictionaries you publish, Merriam-Webster has a big presence online with a website that offers free searchable dictionaries, a “Word of the Day” podcast, word game features, and an “Open Dictionary” that allows readers to submit newly coined words not in the official dictionary.  How did an old-time dictionary maker come to make that move onto the Web?

JM: Back in the late 1980s, it was becoming clear that people were going to want to use their dictionaries in many different ways.  We did some early experiments with CD-ROM dictionaries and with handheld devices. But as we saw the Web really taking off in the early 1990s, it became clear this would be the most dominant electronic platform.  We made a decision--and it was controversial at the time--to put our biggest, most successful dictionary [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary] online and available to search for free.  That made some people nervous at the company, but my feeling was people are going to use both formats. I thought that if they encountered us on the web and enjoyed the experience that would be a great endorsement of our print product as well.

EL: Has it worked out that way?

JM: Yes. In the decade that followed the decision to go online, our market share of sales of hardcover and paperback dictionaries has increased. Having the dictionary on the Web has been the single most effective form of brand promotion we’ve ever done.  But it was also a philosophical decision. The history and rationale of Merriam-Webster is to try to be THE American Dictionary. That was Noah Webster’s vision of what his work should be: the dictionary for all Americans. He had a vision of dictionaries in all different price points designed for different people.  If we want to be the dictionary for all Americans that includes providing a dictionary for those who want to get their language information free on the Web.

EL: The Open Dictionary on the Merriam-Webster website, to which readers submit not-yet-in the-dictionary terms like “e-pal,” “overshare,” “stop stick” and “unsubscribe,” is a relatively new feature for the company. How does it mesh with the traditional work of lexicography?

JM: The Open Dictionary has been up for a few years and it has contributed an interesting dimension to our program. It’s an awareness service for us. It helps us to think about a word as a candidate for admission that we might have overlooked and it serves as a confirmation for the choices of new entries that the staff is making

EL: How do you actually decide which new words will go into the dictionary?

JM: In many ways, it’s not that much different from what lexicographers have done in the past. We have a rigorous, ongoing program, called Reading and Marking, in which the staff is on the lookout for new words and senses of words.  They are also looking for new uses of words, new spellings, new compounding, etc.

Each editor on the staff spends a portion of each day reading—books, annual reports, newspapers, cookbooks, parts catalogues, websites—anything we can get our hands on that might provide evidence for words that we should get into the dictionary.

If they spot something that seems of interest, we take what we call a citation, an example of the word used in context and that becomes part of our file, which now includes more than 16 million citations.  We decide on a new word by looking at those citations. If we see a pattern of consistent use over a period of years in a wide variety of publications, then it’s time to put that word in the dictionary.

EL: Has the Web and all of the rapid shifts in technology affected the way new words enter the language?

JM: Yes. The presence of the Web has allowed words to spread and establish themselves faster than they had previously.  Words are flying into the English language now.

It used to be that a word would be around for ten to 20 years before it found its way into the dictionary.  Now, words are established in three to five years.  That’s the power of the web to distribute information.

EL: According to Merriam-Webster’s  “Word Watch” online newsletter,  some serious contenders for inclusion in the dictionary include  “biodefense,” “acai” (a kind of berry) and “fan fiction.” Can you tell us if they’ll make the cut.

JM: Unfortunately, I can’t. We update the print and online dictionaries each year in the spring and only then do we announce our choices.

EL: What else has Merriam-Webster learned from the Web?

JM: Thanks to our online dictionary, for the first time in the history of dictionary making we now know which words people look up most frequently. And it turns out that they are not the kind of words marketing departments like to promote. It’s not new words, not slang, not popular culture or technology.  What people look up most often are fairly serious English words, words such as “ irony,” “metaphor,” “ubiquitous,” “paradigm,” “esoteric,” “epiphany.”  These are words that tend to be abstract concepts and just a little tricky in their meaning.  That’s encouraging to me. It suggests that people are concerned about using language well.

EL: Merriam-Webster has been in business for a long time.  Any estimates on how many dictionaries the company has sent out into the world?

JM: We’ve published between 55 and 60 million copies of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary since it was first printed in 1898, and we’ve published around 50 million copies of our paperback edition since 1947. And our website gets about 40 million visits per month, with 25 million unique users.

EL: That’s a lot of books and a lot of hits!

JM: Yes. It’s a great feeling. It’s also a bit humbling when you realize how many people rely on what you are doing.

The path that leads to the Gardner Integrated Athletic Center and Whitehead Campus Center. The GIAC opened in 2006.

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