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Unabridged Online

Ever since the publication of its shocking Third Edition in 1961, foes and friends of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, familiarly known as “the Unabridged,” have wondered when the G. and C. Merriam Co. (now Merriam-Webster) would publish a Fourth.

Foes who were shocked by the Third’s inclusion of “ain’t” and “irregardless” without complete condemnation couldn’t wait. The New York Times, Life magazine, and the ABA Journal all suggested keeping copies of the Second on hand rather than adopting the Third, hoping to hold out for a more decorous Fourth.

Friends of the Third, on the other hand, admiring its prodigious scholarship in elucidating meanings of nearly half a million entries, weren’t impatient. They understood that it would take another quarter century, at least, before a revision would be needed.

And a quarter century did pass. From time to time the company added a few pages of new words in an Addenda section, but that wasn’t anything like a revision.

Meanwhile Merriam-Webster was busier than ever with its regularly updated Collegiate as well as other books, including an authoritative new dictionary of usage and a thesaurus. In the 1990s, Merriam-Webster pioneered putting dictionaries online, no easy task because of the complex form of entries. The Collegiate went online first, and then in 2000 the whole Unabridged, including its Addenda. But no word about the Fourth.

The 50th anniversary of the Third passed in 2011 with still no Fourth in sight. So it was a happy surprise this year to learn that all of a sudden, available online from the publisher was a new Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

As the title implies, it’s not your grandfather’s Unabridged. The company is careful not to claim that it’s the Fourth Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. But it is the successor.

You’ll never be able to buy it in a hefty paper volume to place on a pedestal in your library. Instead, like so many other 21st-century dictionaries, it’s available online, and online only. That allows it to be more, and less, than a print version would have been.

The print version would have had to wait until it was finished, years hence. The online version allows access to the revision as it is being born.

If you subscribe to the Unabridged for $29.95 a year, you’ll get something new: 5,000 new entries (like anonymize, crowdsourcing and alt-country music) along with 107,000 new example sentences. There are 200 usage paragraphs. You can search for example sentences not only in the dictionary but also the Merriam-Webster citation files. There’s a home page with articles by the editors, lists of the most frequently looked up words, top 10 lists, quizzes, Word of the Day—even an opportunity to look up a word. All that is nice new frosting on the cake.

The cake itself, on the other hand, is still mostly the 1961 version. The 450,000 entries in the Third, plus the Addenda, remain mostly as defined there. A small staff is going through the whole dictionary, checking definitions and etymologies. It will take a long time to update it fully.

But that’s OK, because the Third had good definitions. And thanks to the Unabridged’s location in the cloud, the editors can make sure that the most needed definitions, of new and frequently looked up words, are up to the minute.

In short, the online format gives the small staff an Archimedes lever to move the bulk of the Third into the 21st century.

(If you want to know what an Archimedes lever is, however, you’ll have look somewhere else, like the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes biographical material. The OED tells us Archimedes was “A philosopher of Syracuse, celebrated for his discoveries in applied mathematics and mechanics, and for his statement, that with a lever long enough and a point to stand upon he could move the world.”)

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