The name Webster's Dictionary may refer to any of the line of dictionaries first developed by Noah Webster in the early 19th century, and also to numerous unrelated dictionaries that added Webster's name just to share his prestige. The term is a genericized trademark in the U.S. for comprehensive dictionaries of the English language.
- 1 Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language
- 2 "Webster's" dictionaries by others
- 3 Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961)
- 4 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
- 5 The name Webster used by others
- 6 Competition
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language
Noah Webster (1758–1843), the author of the readers and spelling books that dominated the American market at the time, spent decades of research in compiling his dictionaries. His first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, appeared in 1806. In it, he popularized features that would become a hallmark of American English spelling (center rather than centre, honor rather than honour, program rather than programme, etc.) and included technical terms from the arts and sciences rather than confining his dictionary to literary words. Webster was a proponent of English spelling reform for reasons both philological and nationalistic. In A Companion to the American Revolution (2008), John Algeo notes: "it is often assumed that characteristically American spellings were invented by Noah Webster. He was very influential in popularizing certain spellings in America, but he did not originate them. Rather […] he chose already existing options such as center, color and check on such grounds as simplicity, analogy or etymology". He spent the next two decades working to expand his dictionary.
ADEL first edition 1828
In 1828, at the age of 70, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language (ADEL) in two quarto volumes containing 70,000 entries, as against the 58,000 of any previous dictionary. There were 98,000 copies printed, at only 15¢ for the two volumes. At first, the book sold in huge proportions, but after raising the dictionary price to $15 the book sold poorly and all copies were not bound up at the same time; the book also appeared in publisher's boards; other original bindings of a later date are not unknown.
ADEL second edition 1841
In 1841, 82-year-old Noah Webster published a revised and expanded edition of his lexicographical masterpiece in two volumes, a 2nd Edition, Corrected and Enlarged of the American Dictionary of the English Language, with the help of his son, William G. Webster. It was published in octavo size, and contained the whole vocabulary of the quarto (1st edition), with corrections, improvements and five thousand additional words. Published by the author, the first printing was in 1841 by B.L. Hamlen, of New Haven.
When Webster died, his heirs sold unbound sheets of his 1841 Revised American Dictionary of the English Language to the firm of J.S. & C. Adams of Amherst, Massachusetts. This firm bound and published a small number of copies in 1844 – the same edition that Emily Dickinson used as a tool for her poetic composition. However, a $15 price tag on the book made it too expensive to sell easily, so the Amherst firm decided to sell out. Merriam acquired rights from Adams, as well as signing a contract with Webster’s heirs for sole rights.
Lepore (2008) demonstrates Webster's innovative ideas about language and politics and shows why Webster's endeavours were at first so poorly received. Culturally conservative Federalists denounced the work as radical—too inclusive in its lexicon and even bordering on vulgar. Meanwhile Webster's old foes the Jeffersonian Republicans attacked the man, labelling him mad for such an undertaking.
Scholars have long seen Webster's 1844 dictionary to be an important resource for reading poet Emily Dickinson's life and work; she once commented that the "Lexicon" was her "only companion" for years. One biographer said, "The dictionary was no mere reference book to her; she read it as a priest his breviary – over and over, page by page, with utter absorption."
Austin (2005) explores the intersection of lexicographical and poetic practices in American literature, and attempts to map out a "lexical poetics" using Webster's dictionaries. He shows the ways in which American poetry has inherited Webster and drawn upon his lexicography in order to reinvent it. Austin explicates key definitions from both the Compendious (1806) and American (1828) dictionaries and brings into its discourse a range of concerns including the politics of American English, the question of national identity and culture in the early moments of American independence, and the poetics of citation and of definition.
Webster's dictionaries were a redefinition of Americanism within the context of an emergent and unstable American socio-political and cultural identity. Webster's identification of his project as a "federal language" shows his competing impulses towards regularity and innovation in historical terms. Perhaps the contradictions of Webster's project comprised part of a larger dialectical play between liberty and order within Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary political debates.
The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, was based on Noah Webster’s American Dictionary edition of 1841.
"Webster's" dictionaries by others
Noah Webster's assistant, and later chief competitor, Joseph Emerson Worcester, and Webster's son-in-law Chauncey A. Goodrich, published an abridgment of Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language in 1829, with the same number of words and Webster's full definitions, but without the literary references. Although it was more successful financially than the original 1828 edition and was reprinted many times, Noah Webster was critical of it. Worcester and Goodrich's abridgment of Noah Webster's 1841 (1844) edition was printed, this time by Harper and Brothers of New York City, in 1844, with added words as an appendix.
New and Revised Edition 1847
Upon Webster's death in 1843, the unsold books and all rights to the copyright and name "Webster" were purchased by brothers George and Charles Merriam, who then hired Webster's son-in-law Chauncey A. Goodrich, a professor at Yale College, to oversee revisions. Goodrich's New and Revised Edition appeared on 24 September 1847, and a Revised and Enlarged edition in 1859, which added a section of illustrations indexed to the text. His revisions remained close to Webster's work, although removing what later editors referred to as his "vexcrescences".
In 1850, Blackie and Son in Glasgow published the first general dictionary of English that relied heavily upon pictorial illustrations integrated with the text. Its The Imperial Dictionary, English, Technological, and Scientific, Adapted to the Present State of Literature, Science, and Art; On the Basis of Webster's English Dictionary used Webster's for most of their text, adding some additional technical words that went with illustrations of machinery.
Unabridged edition 1864
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In response to Joseph Worcester's groundbreaking dictionary of 1860, A Dictionary of the English Language, the G. & C. Merriam Company created a significantly revised edition, A Dictionary of the English Language. It was edited by Yale University professor Noah Porter and published in 1864, containing 114,000 entries. It was sometimes referred to as the Webster–Mahn edition, because it featured revisions by Dr. C. A. F. Mahn, who replaced unsupportable etymologies which were based on Webster's attempt to conform to Biblical interpretations of the history of language. It was the first edition to largely overhaul Noah Webster's work, and the first to be known as the Unabridged. Later printings included additional material: a "Supplement Of Additional Words And Definitions" containing over 4,600 new words and definitions in 1879, A Pronouncing Biographical Dictionary containing over 9,700 names of noteworthy persons in 1879, and a Pronouncing Gazetteer in 1884. The 1883 printing of the book contained 1,928 pages and was 8½ in (22 cm) wide by 11½ in (29 cm) tall by 4¼ in (11 cm) thick. The 1888 printing (revision?) is similarly sized, with the last printed page number "1935" which has on its back further content (hence, 1936th page), and closes with "Whole number of pages 2012". This dictionary carries the 1864 Preface by Noah Porter with postscripts of 1879 and 1884.
James A.H. Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (1879-1928) says Webster's unabridged edition of 1864 "acquired an international fame. It was held to be superior to every other dictionary and taken as the leading authority on the meaning of words, not only in America and England, but also throughout the Far East."
Webster's International Dictionary (1890 and 1900)
Porter also edited the succeeding edition, Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language (1890), which was an expansion of the American Dictionary. It contained about 175,000 entries. In 1900, Webster’s International was republished with a supplement that added 25,000 entries to it.
Webster's New International Dictionary 1909
The Merriam Company issued a complete revision in 1909, Webster's New International Dictionary, edited by William Torrey Harris and F. Sturges Allen. Vastly expanded, it covered over 400,000 entries, and double the number of illustrations. A new format feature, the divided page, was designed to save space by including a section of words below the line at the bottom of each page: six columns of very fine print, devoted to such items as rarely used, obsolete, and foreign words, abbreviations, and variant spellings. Notable improvement was made in the treatment and number of discriminated synonyms, comparisons of subtle shades of meaning. Also added was a twenty-page chart comparing the Webster's pronunciations with those offered by six other major dictionaries.
Webster’s New International Dictionary (second edition, 1934)
In 1934, the New International Dictionary was revised and expanded for a second edition, which is popularly known as "Webster’s Second" or W2, although it was not published under that title. It was edited by William Allan Neilson and Thomas A. Knott. It contained 3350 pages and sold for $39.50. Some versions added a 400-page supplement called "A Reference History of the World," which provided chronologies "from earliest times to the present". The editors claimed over 600,000 entries, more than any other dictionary at that time, but that number included many proper names and newly added lists of undefined "combination words". Multiple definitions of words are listed in chronological order, with the oldest, and often obsolete, usages listed first. For example, the first definition of starve includes dying of exposure to the elements as well as from lack of food.
The numerous picture plates added to the book's appeal and usefulness, particularly when pertaining to things found in nature. Conversely, the plate showing the coins of the world's important nations quickly proved to be ephemeral. Numerous gold coins from various important countries were included, including American eagles, at a time when it had recently become illegal for Americans to own them, and when most other countries had withdrawn gold from active circulation as well.
Early printings of this dictionary contained the famous dord.
Because of its style and word coverage, "Webster's Second" is still a popular dictionary. For example, in the case of Miller Brewing Co. v. G. Heileman Brewing Co., Inc., 561 F.2d 75 (7th Cir. 1977) – a trademark dispute in which the terms "lite" and "light" were held to be generic for light beer and therefore available for use by anyone – the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, after considering a definition from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, wrote that "[T]he comparable definition in the previous, and for many the classic, edition of the same dictionary is as follows:..."
Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961)
After about a decade of preparation, G. & C. Merriam issued the entirely new Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (commonly known as Webster's Third, or W3) in September 1961. It was edited by Philip Babcock Gove and a team of lexicographers who spent 757 editor-years and $3.5 million. It contained more than 450,000 entries, including over 100,000 new entries and as many new senses for entries carried over from previous editions.
The final definition, Zyzzogeton, was written on October 17, 1960; the final etymology was recorded on October 26; and the final pronunciation was transcribed on November 9. The final copy went to the typesetters, RR Donnelley, on December 2. The book was printed by the Riverside Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first edition had 2,726 pages (measuring 9 in (23 cm) wide by 13 in (33 cm) tall by 3 in (7.6 cm) thick), weighed 13½ lbs (6.12 kg), and originally sold for $47.50 (about $350 in 2010 dollars). The changes were the most radical in the history of the Unabridged.
Although it was an unprecedented masterwork of scholarship, it was met with considerable criticism for its descriptive (rather than prescriptive) approach. It told how the language was used, not how it ought to be used.
Prior to Webster's Third the Unabridged had been expanded with each new edition, with minimal deletion. To make room for 100,000 new words, Gove now made sweeping deletions, dropping 250,000 entries. He eliminated the "nonlexical matter" that more properly belongs to an encyclopedia, including all names of people and places (which had filled two appendices). There were no more mythological, biblical, and fictional names, nor the names of buildings, historical events, or art works. Thirty picture plates were dropped. The rationale was that, while useful, these are not strictly about language. Gove justified the change by the company's publication of Webster's Biographical Dictionary in 1943 and Webster's Geographical Dictionary in 1949, and the fact that the topics removed could be found in encyclopedias.
Also removed were words which had been virtually out of use for over two hundred years (except those found in major literature such as Shakespeare), rare variants, reformed spellings, self-explanatory combination words, and other items considered of little value to the general reader. The number of small text illustrations was reduced, page size increased, and print size reduced by one-twelfth, from six point to agate (5.5 point) type. All this was considered necessary because of the large amount of new material, and Webster's Second had almost reached the limits of mechanical bookbinding. The fact that the new book had about 700 fewer pages was justified by the need to allow room for future additions.
In style and method, the dictionary bore little resemblance to earlier editions. Headwords (except for "God", acronyms pronounced as a string of letters, and, in the reprints, trademarks) were not capitalized. Instead of capitalizing "American", for example, the dictionary had labels next to the entries reading cap (for the noun) and usu cap (for the adjective). This allowed informative distinctions to be drawn: "gallic" is usu cap while "gallicism" is often cap and "gallicize" is sometimes cap.
Reception and criticisms
The reviews of the Third edition were highly favorable in Britain.
Robert Chapman, a lexicographer, canvassed fellow lexicographers at Funk & Wagnalls, who had used the new edition daily for three years. The consensus held that the Third was a "marvelous achievement, a monument of scholarship and accuracy". They did come up with some specific criticisms, including typographic unattractiveness (the type is too small and hard to read); non-use of capital letters (only "God" was capitalized; the goal was to save space); excessive use of citations, giving misspellings as legitimate variants, dropping too many obsolete words, the lack of usage labels, and deliberate omission of biographical and geographical entries. Chapman concluded that the "cranks and intransigents who advise us to hang on to the NID 2 are plain fools who deny themselves the riches of a great book".
This dictionary became preferred as a backup source by two influential style guides in the United States, although each one directs writers to go first to other, shorter dictionaries. The Chicago Manual of Style, followed by many book publishers and magazines in the United States, recommends Webster's Third, along with Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for "general matters of spelling", and the style book "normally opts for" the first spelling listed (with the Collegiate taking precedence over Webster's Third because it "represents the latest research"). The Associated Press Stylebook, used by most newspapers in the United States, refers readers to W3 "if there is no listing in either this book or Webster's New World".
In the early 1960s, Webster's Third came under attack for its "permissiveness" and its failure to tell people what proper English was. It was the opening shot in the culture wars, as conservatives detected yet another symbol of the permissiveness of society as a whole and the decline of authority, as represented by the Second Edition. As historian Herbert Morton explained, "Webster's Second was more than respected. It was accepted as the ultimate authority on meaning and usage and its preeminence was virtually unchallenged in the United States. It did not provoke controversies, it settled them." Critics charged that the [Webster's Third] dictionary was reluctant to defend standard English, for example entirely eliminating the labels "colloquial", "correct", "incorrect", "proper", "improper", "erroneous", "humorous", "jocular", "poetic", and "contemptuous", among others.
Gove's stance was an exemplar of descriptivist linguistics: describing language as it is or has been used. As David M. Glixon put it in the Saturday Review: "Having descended from God's throne of supreme authority, the Merriam folks are now seated around the city desk, recording like mad." Jacques Barzun said this stance made Webster's Third "the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party", done with "a dogma that far transcends the limits of lexicography".
In 1962 two English professors, James Sledd (Northwestern) and Wilma R. Ebbitt (University of Chicago), published a "casebook" that compiles more than sixty lay and expert contributions to this controversy. In it, Sledd was drawn into debate with Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982), one of the most prominent critics of the dictionary, who in the pages of the The New Yorker (March 10, 1962) had accused its makers of having "untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English"; Macdonald held that the dictionary was an important indicator of "the changes in our cultural climate".
The dictionary's treatment of "ain't" was subject to particular scorn, since it seemed to overrule the near-unanimous denunciation of that word by English teachers. The New Yorker ran a cartoon showing a receptionist at the dictionary's office telling a visitor that "Dr. Gove ain't in." The entry said, "though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain't I". The Globe and Mail of Toronto editorialized: "a dictionary's embrace of the word 'ain't' will comfort the ignorant, confer approval upon the mediocre, and subtly imply that proper English is the tool of only the snob". The New York Times editorialized that "Webster's has, it is apparent, surrendered to the permissive school that has been busily extending its beachhead in English instruction in the schools ... reinforced the notion that good English is whatever is popular" and "can only accelerate the deterioration" of the English language. The Times' widely respected Theodore M. Bernstein, its in-house style authority and a professor of journalism at Columbia University, reported that most of the newspaper's editors decided to continue to use the Webster's Second. Garry Wills in the National Review opined that the new dictionary "has all the modern virtues. It is big, expensive, and ugly. It should be a great success."
Criticism of the dictionary spurred the creation of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, where 500 usage notes were determined by a panel of expert writers; the editor, however, often ignored their advice.
Revisions and updates
Since the 1961 publication of the Third, Merriam-Webster has reprinted the main text of the dictionary with only minor corrections. To add new words, they created an Addenda Section in 1966, included in the front matter, which was expanded in 1971, 1976, 1981, 1986, 1993, and 2002. However, the rate of additions has been much slower than it had been throughout the previous hundred years.
Following the purchase of Merriam-Webster by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. in 1964, a three-volume version was issued for many years as a supplement to the encyclopedia. At the end of volume three, this edition included the Britannica World Language Dictionary, 474 pages of translations between English and French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Yiddish.
The Merriam-Webster staff has been working on the fourth edition (W4) of the Unabridged since 2008, but a publication date has not yet been set.
A CD-ROM version of the complete text, with thousands of additional new words and definitions from the "addenda", was published by Merriam-Webster in 2000, and is often packaged with the print edition.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
Merriam-Webster introduced its Collegiate Dictionary in 1898 and the series is now in its 11th edition. Following the publication of Webster's International in 1890, two Collegiate editions were issued as abridgments of each of their Unabridged editions.
With the 9th edition (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (WNNCD), published in 1987), the Collegiate adopted changes which distinguish it as a separate entity rather than merely an abridgment of the Third New International (the main text of which has remained virtually unrevised since 1961). Some proper names were returned to the word list, including names of Knights of the Round Table. The most notable change was the inclusion of the date of the first known citation of each word, to document its entry into the English language. The 11th edition (published in 2003) includes over 225,000 definitions, and over 165,000 entries. A CD-ROM of the text is sometimes included.
This dictionary is preferred as a source "for general matters of spelling" by the influential The Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed by many book publishers and magazines in the United States. The Chicago Manual states that it "normally opts for" the first spelling listed.
The name Webster used by others
Since the late 19th century, dictionaries bearing the name Webster's have been published by companies other than Merriam-Webster. Some of these were unauthorized reprints of Noah Webster's work; some were revisions of his work. One such revision was Webster's Imperial Dictionary, based on John Ogilvie's The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, itself an expansion of Noah Webster's American Dictionary.
Following legal action by Merriam, successive US courts ruled by 1908 that Webster's entered the public domain when the Unabridged did, in 1889. In 1917, a US court ruled that Webster's entered the public domain in 1834 when Noah Webster's 1806 dictionary's copyright lapsed. Thus, Webster's became a genericized trademark and others were free to use the name on their own works.
Since then, use of the name Webster has been rampant. Merriam-Webster goes to great pains to remind dictionary buyers that it alone is the heir to Noah Webster. The issue is more complicated than that, however. Throughout the 20th century, some non-Merriam editions, such as Webster's New Universal, were closer to Webster's work than modern Merriam-Webster editions. Indeed, further revisions by Merriam-Webster came to have little in common with their original source, while the Universal, for example, was minimally revised and remained largely out of date. However, Merriam-Webster revisionists find solid ground in Noah Webster's concept of the English language as an ever-changing tapestry.
So many dictionaries of varied size and quality have been called Webster's that the name no longer has any specific brand meaning. Despite this, many people still recognize and trust the name. Thus, Webster's continues as a powerful and lucrative marketing tool. In recent years, even established dictionaries with no direct link to Noah Webster whatsoever have adopted his name, adding to the confusion. Random House dictionaries are now called Random House Webster's, and Microsoft's Encarta World English Dictionary is now Encarta Webster's Dictionary. The dictionary now called Webster's New Universal no longer even uses the text of the original Webster's New Universal dictionary, but rather is a newly commissioned version of the Random House Dictionary.
The Webster's Online Dictionary: The Rosetta Edition is not linked to Merriam-Webster OnLine. It is a multilingual online dictionary created in 1999 by Philip M. Parker. This site compiles different online dictionaries and encyclopedia including the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913), the Wiktionary and Wikipedia.
Noah Webster's main competitor was a man named Joseph Emerson Worcester, whose 1830 Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language brought accusations of plagiarism from Webster. The rivalry was carried on by Merriam after Webster's death, in what is often referred to as the "Dictionary Wars". After Worcester's death in 1865, revision of his Dictionary of the English Language was soon discontinued and it eventually went out of print.
The American edition of Charles Annandale's four volume revision of The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1883 by the Century Company, was more comprehensive than the Unabridged. The Century Dictionary, an expansion of the Imperial first published from 1889 to 1891, covered a larger vocabulary until the publication of Webster's Second in 1934, after the Century had ceased publication.
In 1894 came Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, an attractive one volume counterpart to Webster's International. The expanded New Standard of 1913 was a worthy challenge to the New International, and remained a major competitor for many years. However, Funk & Wagnalls never revised the work, reprinting it virtually unchanged for over 50 years, while Merriam published two major revisions.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which published its complete first edition in 1933, challenged Merriam in scholarship, though not in the marketplace due to its much larger size. The New International editions continued to offer words and features not covered by the OED, and vice versa. In the 1970s, the OED began publishing Supplements to its dictionary and in 1989 integrated the new words in the supplements with the older definitions and etymologies in its Second Edition.
Between the 1930s and the 1950s, several college dictionaries, notably the American College Dictionary and (non-Merriam) Webster's New World Dictionary, entered the market alongside the Collegiate. Among larger dictionaries during this period was (non-Merriam) Webster's Universal Dictionary (also published as Webster's Twentieth Century Dictionary) which traced its roots to Noah Webster and called itself "unabridged", but had less than half the vocabulary and paled in scholarship against the Merriam editions.
After the disappointing reception of Webster's Third New International in the 1960s, the market was open for new challengers. Random House adapted its college dictionary by adding more illustrations and large numbers of proper names, increasing its print size and page thickness, and giving it a heavy cover. In 1966, it was published as a new "unabridged" dictionary. It was expanded in 1987, but it still covered no more than half the actual vocabulary of Webster's Third.
The American Heritage Publishing Co., highly critical of Webster's Third, failed in an attempt to buy out Merriam-Webster and determined to create its own dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. In 1969, it issued a college-sized dictionary, which has since been expanded and become one of the most popular English dictionaries. Now in its fifth edition, it is only slightly greater in vocabulary than the Collegiate, but it appears much larger and has the appeal of many pictures and other features. Other medium-sized dictionaries have since entered the market, including the New Oxford American and the Encarta Webster's, while Merriam-Webster has not attempted to compete by issuing a similar edition. All of these offer college editions, but Merriam-Webster's Collegiate is the largest and most popular.
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The 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language (2 volumes; New York: S. Converse, 1828) can be searched online at:
DjVu versions can be viewed at the www.archive.org site:
Plain text versions are also available from the above site (with some errors, due to automatic optical character recognition).
1841 (1844) edition
- Noah Websters's final 1841 (published 1844) edition on the Emily Dickinson site. This is a digitization of the last edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language that Noah Webster made before his death – the same edition that Edward Dickinson bought for the family library in 1844.
The dictionary's 1913 edition of the 1900 International, renamed Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, has in modern times been used in various free online resources, as its copyright lapsed and it became public domain. Some of these resources include:
- Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionaries of 1913 + 1828 are accessible via an online search
- The Gutenberg Webster's Unabridged Dictionary is available as an E-text from Project Gutenberg
- The Online Plain Text English Dictionary is based on the Project Gutenberg E-text version of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
- The Century Webster Dictionary provides a simple interface for the 1913 edition.
- Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) for the DICT server.
- Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913-ed.) Electronic dictionary in EPWING/JIS X 4081 format
- Collaborative International Dictionary of English and GCIDE
- dict.org DICT Development Group A WWW interface to several freely available on-line dictionaries.
- Webster's Online Dictionary, Rosetta Edition: see above, the name Webster used by others.
The latest edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary can be searched online at the company's website. The updated Third New International is available online only by subscription.