JOHN M. MORSE WANTS to have a word with you. If you have access to the Internet, he'll offer it for free.
Morse is president of Merriam-Webster Inc., publisher of dictionaries and other reference works. He was in Baltimore last week for an unusual book-signing -- unusual in that Morse could not possibly be the author of the century-old Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.
The 1998 version of the book contains 160,000 words and 215,000 definitions in 1,557 pages. It's yours for $24.95. Its "author," of course, is our forebears and all of us who keep inventing words and recommending them to Merriam-Webster's "definers" in Springfield, Mass.
The word "Internet," for example. Merriam-Webster put that word in its "collegiate" only in 1996, Morse said, and look what's happened. Debuting in the dictionary this year are "HTML," "netiquette," "home page" and "World Wide Web."
"It's appropriate that words surrounding this hot new technology are going into our dictionary exactly a century after we introduced 'telephone,' " Morse said.
"Telephone" spawned a host of words, too. One of them, introduced in 1898, was "hello," which replaced "halloo," a common late 19th-century greeting.
"Hello" was the word Thomas Edison's switchboard operators were trained to use when they answered the phone. Alexander (( Graham Bell's operators used "ahoy," Morse said, "not the first time Edison had a better idea."
The son of librarians, Morse, 47, is in love with words, and though his trip around the country is clearly designed to sell his company's dictionaries, it's also to acquaint people with the wonders of the language. "I love the sound of words, the texture of words, the meaning of words," he said. "I've loved words since my parents read to me when I was a child."
The Merriam-Webster Collegiate is in its 10th edition -- overhauled about every decade, although it's updated yearly. It is also one of many reference works that are on the World Wide Web. Merriam-Webster's Web site (www.m-w.com) also contains the publisher's thesaurus, word games, a list of the latest word additions ("bloviate," "bottom feeder," "browser," "distance learning"), a brief history of the English language and other features.
Why would a publisher of a hardcover book put it on the Internet for anyone in the world to see for the cost of a local telephone call?
"We took a gamble that it would not hurt sales, that people would still want a dictionary to hold in their hands," Morse said. "It apparently paid off. Sales of the dictionary increased 14 percent the year we put it on the Web."
With the dictionary on the Internet, Merriam-Webster officials for the first time in the history of lexicography can discern the words most often looked up. No. 1, Morse said, "is somewhat discouraging" -- an expletive. Other popular hits: "paradigm," "ubiquitous," "esoteric," "oxymoron," "synergy" and "serendipity."
"These are words," Morse said, "people can hear but haven't mastered. It's an encouraging sign that people care enough about the language that they'll actually look words up, particularly on a computer."
What excites Morse most is how words trace our history and culture.
The first Merriam-Webster Collegiate and subsequent editions in the early 20th century introduced not only "telephone," but "phonograph" (actually an old word given new meaning), "light bulb" and "automobile."
"Kindergarten" -- "children's garden" in German -- also entered Merriam-Webster in 1898, and "charter school" in 1998.
"Microorganism" was a hot new word a century ago. This year, we have newcomers "mad cow disease" and "alternative medicine."
"Blizzard," a word believed coined by a man named Lightnin' Ellis who was caught in an Iowa snowstorm in 1870, first appeared in 1898. Coinages abound a century later. Witness "gazillion."
In 1898, "pretzel" was a hot new food and a hot new word. Added to the collegiate this year: "buffalo wings," "farfalle," "primavera" and "ice wine."
"Boycott," an eponymous word named for Charles Cunningham Boycott, an Irish land agent ostracized by his neighbors in 1880, first appeared in 1898. In 1998, newcomers are signs of the times: "domestic partner" and "Ebonics."
Morse was getting revved on words. He was sitting behind a pile of his dictionaries at Encore Books on York Road and had made a few sales. Suddenly John Angevine appeared. Angevine, an 81-year-old Baltimorean, said he was the last descendant of a line of English kings.
"I don't think we're in there," Angevine said, pointing at the pile of Merriam-Websters.
Morse grabbed his copy and began tabbing. He found a couple of references to "Angevine" and breathed a sigh of relief.
Angevine went away satisfied, and so did Morse a few minutes later, off to North Carolina to pitch the words of our lives.
Pub Date: 12/13/98