Some time ago, we did a column about conic reference books. You know the ones: they generally have just one name. Roget, Turabian, Grove’s, Benet…I’ve never heard the end of it. (I left out Fowler.)
One thing I did get right was to mention the one small(ish) dictionary that most of Chicago seems to prefer. I even mention it in my directions on setting up Book Fairs. When I inveigh against setting out too many copies of the same book, I state that this does not apply to reference books, particularly Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
The book is a product of Merriam-Webster, the company which actually bought the rights to Noah Webster’s dictionary and thus has dibs on the name Webster’s. (Although at some point, the Supreme Court ruled that Webster’s MEANS dictionary, and thus any dictionary can call itself a Webster’s. But Merriam-Webster is still considered the best of the Websters.)
They issued their first Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 1898. I haven’t checked to see yet when they got that iconic circle design on the cover: maybe all the Merriam-Webster’s do that. I do occasionally find a third or fourth edition in a donation, but by and large, we deal with the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth editions. AND sometimes people will give up their tenth or their eleventh. Each edition gets bigger, but Merriam-Webster does TRY to keep it to a useful thickness and weight for one-hand use.
Each edition gets a little techier, too. (Please don’t check your Webster’s Collegiate to find “techier”.) The latest edition comes with a CD-Rom, which will no doubt one day be replaced with a Smart code to take you to their website. The website will allow you to download the entire text of the Collegiate, IF you happen to have bought the hard copy AND have a valid proof of purchase with a special code on it. On the website, you can also check on which words are currently “trending”. I see where this would be helpful: if your classmates are all looking up the same word, maybe you’d better choose another topic for your term paper.
Originally, I am told, the Webster’s Collegiate was just an abridgement of the latest edition of the latest Webster’s International Unabridged, that ponderous pile of paper and proper pronunciation. But the Collegiate grew its own audience, which wanted more frequent updates than the Unabridged, and it is now a dictionary in its own right, with more and more essential data all the time.
Whether it’s the size which makes it so useful, or its reliability, or the fact that it was recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style, Webster’s Collegiate became the go-to dictionary for those who are collegiate. The Merriam-Webster website calls it America’s bestselling Dictionary, and to judge by the number of copies which appear every year at the Book Fair, the website called it correctly. The ones we get tend to have a lot of dark bands across the middle, too, where hands have held it and riffled through the pages. And then there are the ones with cigarette papers tucked inside…but, after all, why not? They’re thin and don’t damage the dictionary, and having the dictionary right there on your desk when you’re studying means…well, I forget what I was going to say about that.
But it does make me wonder about the copies that come in with a page or two missing. Someone run out of cigarette papers?