Biography John Morse by Peter Sokolowski Spring 2021

John Morse (Photo Credit: Merriam-Webster)

The hush of a dictionary company’s editorial department was likely familiar and comforting when John Morse arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts forty years ago: he is the son of two librarians and the brother of a third. Long careers in lexicography come from a combination of predilection, preparation, and plain old luck, and John’s bookish childhood and degrees in English from Haverford College (B.A., ‘73) and the University of Chicago (M.A., ‘77) set the groundwork for an editorial career at Merriam-Webster.

He was still a graduate student when he began working for Encyclopaedia Britannica, the parent company of Merriam-Webster. His first assignment was an English major’s dream and the kind of idiosyncratic project that fortuitously prepared him for a career in lexicography. Britannica’s goal for The Microbook Library of English Literature was to provide the text of every notable work from the origins of literary production through the early 20th century, up to the point at which copyright protection would prohibit such reproductions. 

These works, for preference in first or significant editions, would be photographed for microfilm and then further reduced to ultrafiche, such that, ultimately, the entirety of English literature could fit in a few shoeboxes. John’s role as searcher-collator was to locate copies of these books in libraries and to create a page-by-page listing of their contents. “I’m pretty sure the product was obsolete by the time it was done,” John has recently said. Finished at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the digital era, this white elephant nevertheless gave him experience organizing a project, establishing procedures, and managing a staff. It also gave him an insider’s perspective of Britannica as a company, which proved an invaluable asset later in his career.

John arrived at Merriam-Webster’s Springfield offices in December of 1980, having been hired by Editor-in-Chief Fred Mish for a position that differed a bit from the usual “general definer” role, initially adding production responsibilities for overseeing typesetting and proofreading to the standard defining duties. He took the defining and style classes given to all editors by E. Ward “Gil” Gilman, and wrote definitions for the Ninth Edition of the Collegiate, published in 1983, and the 1986 Addenda Section of Webster’s Third.

In 1983, John’s responsibilities expanded as he became Manager of Editorial Operations and Planning. In this position he created proposals for, planned, and oversaw all new editorial projects. Among those projects were Merriam-Webster’s Medical Desk Dictionary in 1986, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage in 1989, and the creation of Merriam-Webster’s line of mass-market paperback dictionaries beginning in 1989. Although the company had produced a paperback dictionary since 1947, the printing and distribution had always been provided by another publisher. In 1989, the company took the unusual step for a hardcover print publisher and reverted these rights to become its own mass-market paperback publisher, and John was responsible for directing the creation of a new edition of the dictionary, based on the most recent edition of the Collegiate. In time, many more mass-market titles would follow, and this format became an important part of the Merriam-Webster product line.

During the late 1980s, John was also present at the creation of another significant initiative: digital publishing. The company had been involved in digital publishing since the early 1980s but only through licensed products created and sold by others. One element of this initiative would be creating a digitized version of Webster’s Third, and John had responsibility for planning the project. He first created a flowchart of the book’s data elements, treating its entry apparatus as a hierarchical data set. The result was a map of the elegant logic of Philip Gove’s sometimes idiosyncratic rules, as much rooted in logic as in language. Having created a system of tags for the data, John planned for the keying of the entire work, a monumental task that was doubled, as each column of text was keyed by two typists, in order to minimize errors. With a text this dense, 99.9% accuracy would mean approximately sixty thousand typos among some sixty million characters, but with the dual-keyboarding approach, the project yielded an accuracy rate approaching 99.99% accuracy.

Bringing new titles to market can be difficult in the narrow, competitive field of reference publishing. John, as Executive Editor, beginning in 1991 and subsequently as President and Publisher, oversaw many new titles to add to the dictionaries in the Merriam line, including the Intermediate Thesaurus, Concise Dictionary of English Usage, the combined Dictionary-Thesaurus, and the Spanish-English and French-English dictionaries, and a dictionary for young readers, Merriam-Webster’s First Dictionary, conceived and edited by Victoria Neufeldt. He also supported books that were not A-Z reference works, such as the successful Vocabulary Builder and a line of lighter books on language from authors like Tom Dalzell and Paul Dickson. A long-time dream to create a third Collegiate title to join the Dictionary and Thesaurus led to the creation of the Collegiate Encyclopedia, edited by Mark Stevens and published in 2000—a great reference book that ultimately found its widest audience as one part of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s online offerings.

John’s promotion to Senior Vice President and Publisher in 1996 and to President and Publisher in 1997 probably came as a surprise to some, as editors do not generally move into these positions. However, in his new-product-planning work, John had always worked closely with colleagues in sales, marketing, and finance, as well as with people at Britannica, and had developed a good understanding of all parts of the business. He was well prepared when Britannica asked him to step into the top spot at Merriam-Webster when his predecessor left unexpectedly.

Probably John’s most consequential decision was made despite Britannica’s misgivings: to provide a full-featured online version of the Collegiate Dictionary and Collegiate Thesaurus, without subscription fee, at Merriam-Webster.com. When the site was launched in 1996, “giving away” the company’s flagship product seemed folly to many, but adapting early to the ethos of the web ultimately led to success without a paywall for the site. Now supported by advertising and with over 100 million page views per month, the online dictionary has become a major part of the company’s business and its public face through social media. Starting early and starting well were equally essential to this strategy. Given the rapid cultural and economic ubiquity of the web, it’s clear that with this decision, John ensured the company’s future.

The internet represented a revolution in publishing, but, as John has pointed out, the company had often shifted its strategy over the years to adjust to new market conditions, from the introduction of mass-market paperbacks to the dominance of Borders and Barnes & Noble and the emergence of big-box general retailers and, finally, online retailers including Amazon. The winning strategy in all these cases was to stay focused on the mission of the company: to provide high-quality information about the English language through whatever channel, platform, or business model is available.

John also recognized the importance of a new market for the company: the learners of English around the world who do not speak it at home. A very different kind of dictionary, one made specifically for non-native speakers, had been pioneered by Oxford, with several other excellent British publishers following suit. Such a dictionary entirely conceived and edited in the U.S. and focusing on American English was John’s goal. A new monolingual Merriam-Webster dictionary had not been created from scratch since the 19th century, but John, with Director of Defining Stephen Perrault and Director of Editorial Operations Madeline Novak, and early direction from Editor-in-Chief Fred Mish, created the Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, a book unlike any other in the company’s line, soon followed by a free online version, a paperback abridgment, and a line of ESL titles.

To outside observers, the apparent quiet and slow pace of the practice of lexicography might make an editorial job seem a sleepy and studious pursuit, perfect for a shy person. But the business of lexicography is an altogether more dynamic story: changes in the economy, the industry, and the company during this period were constant during John’s 38 years at Merriam-Webster, including two decades as President and Publisher. He worked six days a week and, when not traveling on business, was often at his desk well into the evenings. Perhaps no one living has spent more time thinking about the making and selling of dictionaries. 

During much of his time as Publisher, John also served on the board and advisory committees of his alma mater, Haverford College, and on the boards of several nonprofit social-service agencies in Springfield.

John is the only lexicographer to have served as president of the company, and as if running the business wasn’t a full-time job, he shared editing duties as final reader for the Eleventh Collegiate and several other smaller projects, including the Spanish-English Medical Dictionary, the Visual Dictionary, and the Concise Dictionary of English Usage

While Noah Webster has come to personify American dictionary making, it was the behind-the-scenes work of the Merriam brothers that came to fascinate John Morse, who became familiar with their business motivations, editorial strategies, and even their civic involvement in Springfield. Their priorities from the mid-1800s—keep the dictionary up-to-date and seek the widest distribution—could be said to have been John’s as well. When he joined the company, Merriam-Webster published only hardcover books. The world has become much more complicated in the years since, and perhaps only someone who embodied both sides of the company’s name so well could have had such consistent success in finding new ways to fulfill the simple, yet ambitious goals set out by its founders.