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Monday, February 25 12:01 AM EST

Dictionary Innovation Spurs Competition

By Brian Briggs

Dictionaries are not normally considered hotbeds of innovation, but recent moves by Merriam-Webster have other publishers scrambling to keep up.

"We realized that we were behind the curve when the US Department of Justice declared Microsoft a monopoly, but at the same time gave them no more than a slap on the wrist, indicating that monopoly surely doesn't mean the same thing it did, say, in 1984. This is why, in the spirit of Microsoft, we here at Merriam-Webster practice lexical innovation," stated Simon Murray, Associate Editor.

"Monopoly" which now means "a quiet meadow" wasn't the only victim of innovation. Other terms such as "embrace", "extend", "unfair" and even "innovation" itself have been redefined. The new definitions appearing in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary XP are part of a company strategy to spur new dictionary sales.

"We'd rather be proactive than reactive to changes in the language. When you let common people on the street coin new terms and redefine existing words, you get terms like 'phat' and 'da bomb. Now we can let the experts define how we speak and live," said Murray. "He also noted that they plan to publish a new version every year with hundreds of redefined terms. They also plan to release dictionary patches on a monthly basis to correct terms defined incorrectly and to redefine others.

"We just don't have the authors and editors to keep up," said Jeanie Rahaim of the American Heritage Dictionary. "Even though it doesn't mean this any more we think this is 'unfair'. I think Merriam-Webster calls it 'tough shit' now."

Stock analyst Allan Slaybaugh who follows the publishing industry for Bear Stearns said, "This is a great move. People normally buy dictionaries once or twice in a lifetime. By changing the definitions of words on a yearly basis they constantly require people to upgrade or face being misunderstood."

The publisher of The New Oxford American Dictionary protested, "That's not innovation. I don't think they know the meaning of the word."

Murray retorted, "Au contraire, mon frere. That's exactly what it means see right here." Murray pointed to the open dictionary on his desk.

innovation - n. A change in definition. See Merriam-Webster.

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