Which 'Webster's Dictionary' Is the Genuine Article?

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Portrait of Noah Webster (1758-1843) in front of a dictionary. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

For over a century, "Webster's dictionary" has been legally meaningless as a brand name. Following a flurry of lawsuits filed by G. & C. Merriam (now Merriam-Webster) in the first two decades of the 20th century, the courts declared that "Webster" had entered the public domain. In other words, any one of us is free to publish a dictionary with "Webster" in the title.

Not that Merriam-Webster (now owned by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.) is pleased about that.

The company, which characterizes itself as the "direct lexicographical heir of Noah Webster," reluctantly acknowledges that "other publishers may use the name Webster." But buyer beware: "Only Merriam-Webster products are backed by over 150 years of accumulated knowledge and experience."

Well, so much for tradition. Lately, it seems, almost every other publisher has adopted the generic "Webster." Consider:

  • In 1991, despite protests from Merriam-Webster, Random House Dictionary of the English Language was retitled Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Random House (which belongs to the international media giant Bertelsmann AG) also publishes, what else, Webster's Universal College Dictionary.
  • The college edition of Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (since 1999 published by John Wiley & Sons) happens to be the official desk dictionary of both The New York Times and the Associated Press. Webster's New World is unrelated to any of the Merriam-Webster titles.
  • Webster's II New College Dictionary (2004), an updated edition of Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary (1984), is a slightly shorter (and obscenity-free) version of The American Heritage College Dictionary (published by Houghton Mifflin).
  • Encarta Webster's Dictionary: Second Edition (2004) is the latest name for what was originally called, in all innocence, Microsoft's Encarta World English Dictionary (1999).

    Are there any lessons to be learned here? A couple, perhaps.

    1. Denotatively, "Webster" is not much more than an informal term for a dictionary--just about any American dictionary. Connotatively, however, "Webster" seems to be associated in many people's minds with authority, authenticity, and tradition: it's "the real thing"--even when it's not.
    2. If you're in the market for a good dictionary, don't judge a book by its title. In our list of recommended Reference Works for Writers, we point you toward one of the few dictionaries not attributed to Webster.

    Finally, if you're a devout traditionalist, check out the online edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1828)--where "electricity" is defined as a "very subtil fluid," new-fangled words such as "automobile" won't distract you, and, quite refreshingly, the word "Webster" appears nowhere in the title.

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    Nordquist, Richard. "Which 'Webster's Dictionary' Is the Genuine Article?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 12, 2015, thoughtco.com/which-websters-dictionary-is-genuine-1692788. Nordquist, Richard. (2015, July 12). Which 'Webster's Dictionary' Is the Genuine Article? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/which-websters-dictionary-is-genuine-1692788 Nordquist, Richard. "Which 'Webster's Dictionary' Is the Genuine Article?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/which-websters-dictionary-is-genuine-1692788 (accessed December 16, 2017).