Thoughts about some dictionary makers and the profession

Cynthia Barnhart

Sometimes it was difficult to square the story-telling with the usually dignified, serious occupation of editing dictionaries. Generally speaking, my impression from conversation with other dictionary editors and from experience in the offices of Barnhart Books, the process of producing a dictionary was a serious matter: expensive, risky, deadline-driven, producing expected unexpected glitches and, once published, its reception—followed by loud silence. Such concerns notwithstanding, however, dictionary makers whom I have either known well (or simply met once or twice) have always impressed me with their enjoyment of curious collections of dictionary gossip and tales.

While thinking along these lines, a couple of chance remarks popped up in my memory inbox where they had been filed and forgotten for quite a while. The first was a comment that roughly summed me up when I was working in another office, that I wasn’t “at all like what we expected.” I don’t know what it really meant but am pretty sure it had more to do with my long association with Barnharts than with me. The second was a response to my lament about the current status of dictionaries generally, American ones particularly, bemoaning the effective loss of the position of editor-in-chief, with the result, as I saw it, that commercial dictionaries had become truly commercial, lesser and greater editors, demoted to a back-handed, inside-page staff list, arranged in descending order of experience, responsibilities and, presumably importance. At the top of the list is usually the corporate executive whose department is responsible for undertaking the dictionary project. From personal experience, I know that one seldom meets with any executive who has any specific knowledge of dictionaries, how they are produced or their histories. The position of editor-in-chief has been retitled chief editor, below the corporate luminaries, an indicator that the editor-in-chief is just another job category. To me, this is a sign that the dictionary is relegated to the backlist, well before it has become a book. But the answer made to my lament about the need for an editor-in-chief—or, indeed, my assumption that such a person is either desirable or necessary or even exists—simply exposed my quaint opinions. 

Naturally my mind wandered further to thinking about those who planned a dictionary project and then led, dragged, cajoled a staff to complete it, a process familiar to anyone who has begun to bog down about the letter L—halfway through, about the time when the initial excitement of making the book has definitely dampened, when the reality of the very long editorial slog from A to Z has become quite clear. When doing a dictionary, who has failed to dread the arrival of the letter S?

Nonetheless, a roster of people who have persevered and who have shaped a generous output of solid, American dictionaries is easily put together. To remind myself that all dictionaries and their editors are indebted to predecessors, it almost goes without saying that any list of notable editors is only a selection. I have chosen to group (roughly) these American dictionary makers by the specific ideas that animated them, beyond and apart from their interest in the vocabulary their dictionaries encompassed. Some were proselytizers, others nationalists, or recent revolutionaries, committed Christians, who, later, influenced by developments in the scientific study of language, brought to their editorial plans a differently informed view of language, usage and meaning. One way or another, however, and regardless of the time in which they worked, these American dictionary makers were somewhat nationalistic. My own view is that the dictionary makers of earlier days appreciated the difference between British and American English, and were of the opinion that American English was an equal of its British progenitor (notwithstanding Worcester’s desire to encourage conformity between the two languages), this despite the sometimes condescending views of the British toward the American language. No doubt my experiences go further back than many others’, but as a student I did not question the implied superiority of British English to its American cousin; I began to question my acceptance of that view however, having read for a number of years, as an undergraduate and young adult, the London Times for Barnhart Books. It was, as they say, revealing.

Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester remain inextricably woven into the fabric of American dictionaries. Both were Christian nationalists. Worcester’s Compendious Dictionary of American English (1806) was described as the first “truly American” dictionary; boldly described as a reference uniquely suited to the American experiment, his later dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language, was a favorite of writers, praised by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Edward Evertt Hale who exhaled relief with his comment, “We have at last a good dictionary.” Worcester is generally regarded as the best early American lexicographer, although he was not particularly attached to American English, preferring British forms to American, appealing to those Americans who were, shall we say, aspirational Brits. However, staking a clear claim to the worth of the American idiom, Noah Webster edited the 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language. He was an unabashedly Christian dictionary maker who drew heavily on the bible for citations. He described his dictionary as “a work of great importance for modern readers who care about traditional values.” He also remarked that “the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to serve the rights and privileges of a free people.”  (So much for scholarly dispassion.)

One needs to remember that less than fifty years had elapsed since the end of the Revolution and the founding of this still-shaky nation, more than a century before World Wars I and II and the eras of turmoil that yielded decidedly different points of view, especially of language, and the establishment of linguistics as its science. However, shifts of language scholarship were already gathering momentum during the nineteenth century, perhaps best typified by the preference for the (new) science of linguistics, effectively marking the abandonment of philology. Still, dictionaries being what they are, it was a slow process to incorporate these shifts into the dictionary but however slow, it was happening.

The Christian faith, though, remained a major influence during this time. Isaac F. Funk was a Lutheran, a spiritualist, a prohibitionist, a reformer who brought his missionary zeal into his editorial office and produced the (1893) Standard Dictionary of the English Language and established the very successful publishing company Funk and Wagnalls with Adam Wagnalls who, like Funk, left religion for publishing.

A “newer man” was William Dwight Whitney, who did not abandon the academy for the editorial office. He used his scholarship and reputation as an outstanding philologist to the benefit of his editorial design for the Century Dictionary. Benjamin E. Smith was the managing editor of the Century who no doubt was responsible for actually getting the job done and later became editor of volumes 9 and 10, the Century Cyclopedia of Names, and a long list of other Century Company references. The Century Dictionary remains one of the most admired of American dictionaries whose chief editor, Whitney, stood by his work and his staff despite charges of plagiarism that were issued by Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary group who were, perhaps, nervous about the appearance of the Century.

Criticism can be hard to take, especially because interest in our language is not confined to editors and scholars: One only has to remember that Merriam-Webster claims there are some 650,000 subscribers to their “Word of the Day”. Some dictionary editors are or were both professional and idiosyncratic—in addition to being confident, sturdy enough to be able to withstand sometimes nasty personal criticism, as if the editor were responsible for the language.

Among those who followed an unconventionally varied career path to dictionary work was William Morris, first editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. Originally an editor and word columnist at the New York Times—and having served in the merchant marine during World War II— his passion was the quality of written language, and, no surprise, his American Heritage Dictionary emphasized “good” usage but, unusually, drew on the opinions of a panel of writers to advise him. Over the years, the American Heritage remains a strong favorite of English usage admirers, although over time and with multiple revisions that reflect shifting attitudes about what is acceptable and unacceptable in language, the dictionary’s usage notes can appear unfocused or at least equivocating, like someone who wants to be liked despite holding opinions that might cause disagreement—or heaven forefend, be wrong. Morris was certainly sturdy enough to survive the detour around traditional dictionary practice with the emphatype edition of the American Heritage. So did the American College Dictionary and Random House whose management had a sudden onset of spasms when the emphatype edition appeared, designed to be so useful to the dictionary user that all traditional competition would melt away; as we know, that innovation was forced into early retirement, but American Heritage became a successful brand and is still on the market. Ironically, it was the American College Dictionary that was retired early; that singular dictionary was supplanted by later Random House dictionaries, a business decision taken by the publisher who developed a keen dislike for Clarence Barnhart, its editor. A succession of editors have maintained the American Heritage over its lifetime and while the role and composition of the usage panel has changed somewhat, the dictionary is still recognized for its emphasis on usage.

If Morris brought an unconventional resume to his position as a dictionary maker, David Guralnik definitely did not; he was a professional editor, another son of Ohio who produced very solid dictionary work, from 1948-1985 editor-in-chief of New World dictionaries, responsible for Websters New World Dictionary. He was unafraid to act on his opinions of what a dictionary should and should not be burdened with: many widely used obscenities, vulgarities and obvious racial slurs were omitted from the entry lists. These last, Guralnik thought, were fading from use; alas, they seem to have an odds-defying long life. His legacy of dictionaries produced for World Publishing was very successful, his decision to present American English as it is used found an accepting and grateful following of students and writers as well as the New World Dictionary’s adoption as the official dictionary for the AP, UPI, Wall Street Journal and other news organizations.

Katherine B. Wood, more or less de facto editor of the Century Cyclopedia of Names, is not perhaps the first name to come to mind as a dictionary maker. The quality of her work and her nuanced view of how to define meaning and what to include in a dictionary, however, is evident in her analysis and careful reading on the tear sheets of the New English Dictionary (the Century), on every page, notes R.K. Barnhart in his 1996 article “Aftermath” (of the Century), but stop “abruptly” at the letter K. They include many comments for the benefit of Benjamin Smith when the Century Dictionary was in preparation. Wood’s comments are in the Barnhart files, now housed with the Barnhart archive at Indiana University, and so impressed Barnhart that he wrote, “[She was] one of those infrequently found gems of the editorial world around whom a managing editor of a great editorial project builds a staff.”  Unusually, her stellar work was recognized by the Century management as she continued to play a significant role as an editor of the Century Dictionary and the Century Cyclopedia of Names.

Nowadays it is hard to know who runs the show at the various dictionary houses, presumably not because solid editors are a lost tribe, but because the business model now fashionable does not encourage individual entrepreneurship within the editorial office. As this rather superficial selection from the ranks of dictionary makers shows, those who have engaged in innovative work are plentiful and interesting in their own right. That they managed to sell their innovations to the publisher’s management attests to their resourcefulness. Publishers naturally think in terms of sales and costs, and the expensive dictionary, with its long history of success, tends to encourage conservative attitudes among accountants and decision makers. The editor who is a dictionary maker contracted as an independent author to produce a dictionary for a publisher is less well armed, vulnerable to the ultimate corporate weapon: the lawsuit charging plagiarism.  While dictionary editors suffer from a chronic feeling of oppression, they nonetheless manage to prevail so that they succeed in stamping their dictionaries with their individual editorial identities and generally have lived to tell the tale.

Personally I find dictionary people interesting and cherish little bits about them I have learned while stumbling around the dictionary universe. But rather than retailing tales or attempting to explain why someone would spend an entire career making sense of everyone’s language within a specific language community, I believe it is quite enough that dictionary makers find the work fulfilling. I am tempted, though, to mention that the dictionary maker can sometimes fall victim to his or her aspirations, as when Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large describes the company’s editors as “erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate.” A bit over the top in my experience. Only an occupant of the office that traces its descent back to old Noah could so confidently put the cart before the horse, or in today’s lingo, that’s so how it doesn’t work.