Webster's Third New International Dictionary has now replaced the venerable second edition (1934) in all bookstores. Hopefully, much more time will elapse before this skimpy lexical parvenu pushes its immediate ancestor out of reference rooms and private libraries.
In comparing two such behemoths among books, statistics and random samplings become a necessity. On this level, the new dictionary suffers everywhere. William Allan Neilson's 1934 edition contains 600,000 entries, while Philip Gove's 1961 contains only 450,000. Since Gove's staff catalogued 100,000 new words this time, a quarter of a million words must have been dropped from the second edition. For years, Webster's unabridged has listed more words than any dictionary in any language. Now, because of scientific arrivistes to the English vocabulary (like pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcaniconiosis) Webster's no longer commands the serious interest of English readers, who must forever regret the loss of the convenient one-volume compendium they once relied on.
William Allan Neilson, out of a humane regard for the history of our language, extended the scope of the second edition as far back as 1500. He also provided readers with a complete Chaucerian vocabulary. Philip Gove has chosen to eliminate all words obsolete before 1740. The damage done to the study of Tudor and Stuart literature is not easily calculated. Such a policy destroys any claims to scholarship Webster's might make. No matter how many experts and Ph.D's spent their time writing definitions for this new lexicon, the fact still remains that 250,000 words are "out of print," and they are just the sort of words that scholars have interest in.
To the average reader, the omission of "scammel" may not seem like a deathblow to the language. Yet, the Shakespearean scholar, and certainly many others with a far less professional interest in The Tempest, will find no sympathy for an "unabridged" dictionary that fails to recognize words from the mouth of so marvelous a speaker as Caliban.
In general, the etymologies have been shortened; but, in one case, at least, there is an example of simple ignorance. The editors list "posh" as having an "unknown origin." Actually, it is quite well known that "posh" is an abbreviation for "port out, starboard home." It is supposed to have referred to the luxury accommodations on ships between England and India in the heyday of the Empire.
And it will take a fairly "posh" word-fancier to pay $47.50 for the economy edition. Prices for buckram and India paper scrape the empyrean. Once, the Webster's Unabridged had the advantage of cheapness over the O.E.D., but now it can vaunt nothing but its relative portability.
As far as overall format goes, the Third New International smacks somewhat of vulgarity. The bold new Times Roman type face is both smaller and less elegant than the old font; the color illustrations are bright and ugly, and the charming obscurities once collected at the bottom of each page have either been eliminated or squeezed into the general text. Newness cries out raucously everywhere from this ill-conceived, middlebrow foofaraw. Look on these words, ye mighty, and despair.