Unabridged Commentary


Promoting an 1890s edition of the dictionary
(Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.)

unabridged noun A big dictionary.

unabridged adjective (Of a dictionary) big.

We’re so used to these definitions—most recently applied to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged—that we don’t notice how odd it is to use “unabridged” for a dictionary. For that distinctive use, we can thank George and Charles Merriam.

What other word might you use to indicate that a dictionary is big? Well, you could try Universal, as in Nathaniel Bailey’s 1721 Universal Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Noah Webster tried Compendious for his 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. But most of the big dictionaries, including Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language and Webster’s 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language, didn’t even try to mention size in their titles.

That posed a problem for publishers. If size matters in a dictionary, and it does, how could you get people to recognize it?

You could look through your dictionary for the right word.

“Compendious”? Here’s the usage discussion in the new Unabridged: “Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language defines 37,000 words in 355 pages; he intended its vocabulary to be larger than that of Samuel Johnson’s large two-volume dictionary. Webster’s compendious meant ‘comprehensive and concise.’ And ‘comprehensive and concise’ is how most dictionaries have since defined the word. This sense is still in use.” Fine, but “concise” suggests the opposite of big.

So maybe “comprehensive”? According to the new Unabridged, that’s “covering a matter under consideration completely or nearly completely.” An honest lexicographer knows that no dictionary can completely cover the vocabulary of any living language.

Well, what about “universal”? “Including or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or notable exception or variation.” Another impossibility.

Meanwhile, on Noah Webster’s death, in 1843, the Merriam brothers obtained the rights to his dictionaries. Around that time, they or some marketing genius hit upon the word “unabridged” to imply bigness without stretching the literal truth. As Merriam-Webster still does nowadays, they published a whole line of dictionaries, from large to small. The big one was An American Dictionary of the English Language, advertised as “the unabridged” with testimonials like this:

“Webster’s Quarto Dictionary Unabridged.

“We believe we shall be certain of doing a service to the people of the State, if we say a word or two upon the Unabridged Quarto Dictionary of the English Language, by Noah Webster. The word UNABRIDGED has been purposely employed, because if such a work is wanted for any but the very lowest uses—those of mere orthography, or orthoepy—it cannot be too copious and comprehensive. When one is ignorant of the proper and precise powers of a word, he can not endure to be turned over to an abridgment that gives him a synonym, instead of a definition; but he demands to know as much as any body knows of its history or etymology, and its different shades of meaning. Then only can he employ it with confidence and effect, as a mighty weapon for the expression of intellect or passion.”—Newark Daily Advertiser, March 25, 1851.

Indeed, “unabridged” has two virtues: avoiding any promise of comprehensiveness, while implying that other dictionaries are abridgements of the magnum opus. The biggest Merriam-Webster has been known as “unabridged” ever since, but only now has that become its name.

And how does this new Unabridged define “unabridged”? Its second definition is a little plug for itself: “being the most complete of its class <an unabridged dictionary>.”

Still, it’s odd. “Un” implies that the opposite is the norm, the unmarked or usual term. We wouldn’t say “an uncensored book” unless censoring were the norm, “an unbroken window” unless broken windows were the norm, “an unlimited expense account” unless limitations on accounts were the norm.

So to say “an unabridged dictionary” implies that abridgement is the norm and encourages us to think less of anything but the biggest. But what else can dictionary makers do? They adopted “unabridged,” and now they’re stuck with it.

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