In rivalry for our affections, 4 dictionaries vie for last word

December 27, 1993|By John Blades | John Blades,Chicago Tribune

Of all the latest "ghost words," the one most likely to haunt Joseph Esposito for years to come is "cyberpunk."

Understandably, Mr. Esposito would rather refer to it as the "c-word," because every media reference only legitimizes its usage and makes its omission from the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary all the more indefensible.

Mr. Esposito is not the editor of Merriam-Webster's newly rehabbed college dictionary, so he isn't directly accountable for the exclusion of that or any other ghost words (which his dictionary defines as those "never in established usage"). But as company president, he has had to explain and defend the absence of cyberpunk.

He does grant that cyberpunk is showing up "everywhere you turn," including the Random House Webster's College Dictionary which defines it as "science fiction featuring extensive human interaction with supercomputers and a punk ambience"). But Mr. Esposito argues that the true test of its lexicographic validity is where the word is used and how long it's likely to stay in use.

"At this time, according to our citation file, it is largely being used in very specialized publications, generally science fiction. I only know the word because I've been in publishing for 15 years. My mother's never heard the word -- and if she's lucky never will."

However trivial an omission, in a 1,559-page dictionary that claims to have a million "data elements" (including 10,000 new words), cyberpunk has become one of the more wicked missiles the arsenal of Merriam-Webster's three top challengers in the desktop market: Random House Webster's College, Webster's New World, and the American Heritage College dictionaries.

War of the words

This rivalry among the four dictionaries, each of which has a newly revised edition in bookstores, has been repeatedly called a "war of words." More than words, however, it's a war of numbers, with publishers boasting that their dictionary has more entries, more new words, more new definitions, more usage notes.

Because Merriam-Webster's is the acknowledged juggernaut among desktops, claiming half the college market with annual sales of a million copies, its competitors have concentrated their heaviest artillery on the venerable dictionary's alleged weaknesses, such as its reluctance to recognize such up-to-the-minute words as cyberpunk.

"That was really a bad decision," says Jesse Sheidlower, "new words" editor of the Random House Webster's College Dictionary. "Cyberpunk really has enormous currency. It's not just a marginal word."

Although Mr. Sheidlower, like most lexicographers, chooses his words with extreme care, rarely lapsing into street slang, he was delighted to admit that he was "dissing" (or, "showing disrespect for") Merriam-Webster -- "dis" being just one of the words that are exclusive to the Random House dictionary.

New World's executive editor, Michael Agnes, faulted the dictionary for its failure to include "chorionic villus sampling," a prenatal test popularized on an episode of "Murphy Brown."

Another of Merriam-Webster's major oversights, according to David Jost, senior lexicographer at American Heritage, was " 'mountain bike,' which we're pleased to have because it's the largest selling type of bicycle on the market. Random House and New World don't have it either."

For his part, Mr. Esposito counterattacks with "radwaste," "ranch dressing" and "sudser," which are among the words that are the sole property of Merriam-Webster's, at least for now.

'Homeboy' from way back

Mr. Esposito also offered "homeboy," noting that Merriam-Webster's was the only one of the four to track the word's origins.

"We had a citation for this word going back to 1927 in our file, which is the most extensive in the world," Mr. Esposito says. "So here's a word that came into use early in the century, quietly dispersed, and was suddenly picked up by one segment of the population."

Competition among dictionaries has always been brutal, Mr. Esposito said in an interview in the Chicago offices of Encyclopaedia Britannica, parent company of Merriam-Webster since 1964. (The editorial center is Springfield, Mass., where the Merriam brothers acquired the rights to Noah Webster's dictionary 150 years ago.)

To illustrate his point, Mr. Esposito took a poster from the wall depicting "The Battle of the Dictionaries," reproduced from an 1860 illustration in Vanity Fair. If anything, the warfare is even more murderous today.

Within the past decade, he quickly calculated, there have been major new editions of seven dictionaries, abridged and unabridged.

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