That might come off as highfalutin, and possibly self-serving. Merriam isn’t the first dictionary company to update its signature reference work or to go digital-only with it, and the Unabridged isn’t even close to the biggest lexicographic resource out there; Oxford University Press has been issuing quarterly online revisions of its mammoth Oxford English Dictionary since 2000. But while the OED has a handful of lexicographers writing definitions in New York, and the legendary tome is revered for its comprehensive historical approach—the most recent printed edition ran to 20 volumes—it’s ultimately an English-as-in-England work. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged is distinctly American, the seminal sourcebook not only for English as it is written and spoken in the United States but also for the history of lexicography in the United States.
“Language,” to his American Dictionary, “is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.” Almost 200 years later, the descendant of the company Webster founded is the last fully staffed American dictionary-maker standing. And its unabridged dictionary is its crown jewel.
Plans for magnetic discs soon gave way to visions of the Internet as Merriam and other dictionary publishers tried to decipher the digital world. In the mid- to late-1990s, electronic versions of dictionaries—“loose nukes,” Morse calls them—began turning up online. Among them were the seventh edition of the Collegiate, published in 1963, which had been licensed to government agencies and universities, and the 1913 printing of Webster’s International Dictionary, Unabridged, which was as part of .