An Orphan Finds a Loving Home

A looming crisis for newspaper editors has been averted. Webster’s New World Dictionary is in safe hands again.

It’s the dictionary relied on as alpha reference by the Associated Press, The New York Times, and most other American newspapers. It has been that way for a good half century, ever since it dethroned Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary, the 3,000-page, 10-pound “Unabridged,” from its place of honor in America’s newsrooms.

Merriam-Webster shocked editors and pundits with its 1961 third edition, which seemed to condone ain’t with the now-famous usage note, “though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain’t I.

Recognizing that civilization would collapse if this lapse in propriety were allowed, editors looked around for a substitute that would meet two criteria: strict about usage, and not published by Merriam-Webster of Springfield, Mass.

They found one in Webster’s New World Dictionary, an American dictionary first published in 1951 to general acclaim. Despite “Webster’s” in the title, it had no connection to Merriam-Webster. (“Webster’s” is not trademarked, so most American dictionaries use it to imply that they are American and authoritative.) What’s more, it was edited in Cleveland and published by the World Publishing Co., also of Cleveland, far from possible pernicious East Coast influence.

Webster’s New World and newspaper editors lived happily ever after for many years, under a succession of publishers, until two bad things happened. First, not long ago, the Cleveland office was closed and editorial operations diminished by its then publisher John Wiley & Sons. Second, earlier this year Wiley wanted to get rid of it entirely. It looked like Webster’s New World was about to become an orphan, as I lamented in a post this year.

But now comes the good news, in a press release dated November 8: Webster’s New World has been purchased by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher of the American Heritage Dictionary. Both are now housed in the Reference Group at Houghton Mifflin, under the supervision of Executive Editor Steve Kleinedler. And the editors who had worked on WNW at Wiley will continue at HMH. They will retain editorial autonomy, and WNW’s voice and style will continue to be distinct.

I’ll let Kleinedler have the last word: “As a lexicographer, I am thrilled that Webster’s New World has found a new and stable home. The AHD and WNW lines complement each other nicely. I’m happy that WNW has found a home at a publishing company that understands the challenges of publishing dictionaries.”

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