Lindsay Rose Russell

Upon publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language in September 1961, staff of the G. & C. Merriam Company gathered for a celebration at Editor-in-Chief Philip Babcock Gove’s home. Philip and his wife Grace had cultivated the food for the feast on their very own farm, and Grace provided the evening’s entertainments, a musical puppet show with script, lyrics, and marionettes of her own making; their son Norwood recorded the musical accompaniment. Principal characters of the show were principal staff at Merriam-Webster: Philip, managing editor of Webster’s Third since 1951; Gordon J. Gallan, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster since 1953; Anne M. Driscoll, associate editor since 1953; and H. Bosley Woolf, associate editor since 1955. These four protagonists act out a fanciful history of Webster’s Third, inception to completion: Gove and Woolf convincing Gallan to remain faithful to Webster’s Second by not publishing an update, but Driscoll forcing the revision by defenestrating and burning all surviving editions of the Second. The quartet set to work concocting the third edition in “a huge sap bucket, center stage”: They throw in a heap of words (“Words words words. We love words words words!”), a dash of divine lineage (“We’re the direct descendants of Noah Webster, aren’t (ain’t ?) we?”), a generous helping of staff (“All hands round for definiendum!”), a steady stream of scrupulous accounting (“This is running into money!”), and a pinch of underestimated duration (“How long will it take you?” “Six weeks at least.”). The whole of the musical evidences Grace Gove’s insight into Merriam-Webster’s policies, practices, and office humor as well as her appreciation of the nuances of lexicographical labor, her enjoyment of popular misconceptions about dictionaries, and her skepticism of some lexicography’s claims to be an objective science.

On an evening in May 2019, attendees of the joint meeting of DSNA and SHEL gathered for a modest revival of “The Big Book” on the Frangipani stage of Indiana University’s Memorial Union. DSNA members Rachel Stone, Jason Siegel, Orion Montoya, and Orin Hargraves contributed their dramatic and musical talents; I provided a sense of the script’s history, veracity, and significance to today’s dictionary makers, scholars, and enthusiasts. Our performance was warmly received, with laughter and a standing ovation. It was an honor to bring an important piece of dictionary ephemera to life again in such good company.

Image courtesy of Sue Kay Lee.


Steven Kleinedler’s presidential address was recorded and can be played here.