The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 10, 1991
define themselves as Websters
on a valued name
NEW YORK - The lords of the
language are at war over words.
Merriam-Webster Co. and Random House, two of the largest dictionary
publishers in the nation, are engaged in a dispute, not over the contents
of their dictionaries but over two words - Webster's Collegiate - and who
To consumers, one Webster's may be the same as the next. But for four
weeks, those two companies feuded before a federal court jury over who
could use the word that has come to define a dictionary itself -
Is it Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, published by
Merriam-Webster? Or Webster's College Dictionary, the new kid on the
block, published by Random House?
Millions of dollars are at stake.
"As in politics, name recognition is everything," said Louis
T. Milic, secretary-treasurer of the Dictionary Society of North America
and an English professor at Cleveland State University. "With
dictionaries, 'Webster' is what people recognize."
Random House, the giant New York publisher, last year discovered just
how commercially powerful the Webster name could be when it tried a little
wordplay in the title of its midsized hardback dictionary, which had
always been called the Random House College Dictionary.
In tests, Random House added the name "Webster's" in large
type on the cover of the dictionary. In the collective consumer mind, the
dictionary instantly became more authoritative. Sales were projected to
"Random House has a lot of pride," Lawrence Rosenthal, the
publisher's attorney, recalled later in court. "They believed that
'Random House' sold books. It turns out that 'Webster's' sells
The evidence was so compelling that Random House swallowed its pride
earlier this year and changed the name of its dictionary to Webster's
College Dictionary. It spent $1.7 million to print 300,000 copies for the
graduation season, which is second only to the back-to-school season for
Random House is not the first publisher to discover this marketing
gimmick. Indeed, the current edition of Books in Print lists 155
dictionaries, thesauruses and reference works with titles that begin with
the name "Webster."
Both Random House and Merriam-Webster acknowledged in legal filings
that any publisher could exploit the name of Noah Webster, the
19th-century lexicographer who compiled the first American dictionary. The
copyright on the Webster name expired 75 years ago and the word passed
into public domain, becoming like the name Roget, which no longer
describes a specific thesaurus.
But Merriam-Webster was irate because Random House used Webster's name
along with "College Dictionary," which it argued was too similar
to "Webster's Collegiate Dictionary," a Merriam trademark.
And Merriam also contended that Random House's red dust jacket with
white letters imitated the appearance - or "trade dress" - of
the Merriam dictionary.
In suing Random House for trademark infringement in February, Merriam's
attorneys alleged that the name and design of the new dictionary was
"calculated and intended to cause confusion, mistake and deception on
the part of the trade and the public" and to capitalize on
Merriam-Webster's "vast and valuable goodwill and reputation."
Thus were pitted Merriam-Webster, a conservative house in Springfield,
Mass., whose dictionary was the last to abandon New England speech for the
preferred pronunciations of words, against Random House, an aggressive
publisher whose quick adoption of politically correct words such as womyn
has rankled traditionalists.
At stake is the market for a popular type of dictionary known as
college dictionaries - hardcover volumes that contain 150,000 to 180,000
entries and that sell for about $20 each.
Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, published by
Merriam-Webster, is the top seller in the category, with sales of about
one million copies a year. It is followed by Webster's New World
Dictionary, published by Simon & Schuster, and the American Heritage
Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin. The Random House dictionary was
ranked fourth before it changed its name.
Merriam's suit struck a chord among purists in the business, who have
long complained that buying a dictionary has become almost like shopping
for a long-distance telephone company - the similarities are overwhelming.
"They even put the Webster name on some of these cheap,
remaindered dictionaries that have very poor paper," said Emanuel
Molho, owner of the Dictionary Store in Manhattan, which specializes in
technical and foreign dictionaries. (Yes, there is even a Webster's New
World Compact Japanese Dictionary.)
Milic, who heads the dictionary society, said most dictionaries strived
to look the same because they were all aiming at the same buyers who each
year account for the bulk of sales - incoming college freshmen.
"Originally, all dictionaries tried to look different," he
said. "They wanted to have their own identity. But now the identity
that seems to work is a single one - a red dictionary with the word
Webster's in it."
During the trial, Random House's expert witnesses stacked hundreds of
competing dictionaries in front of the six-person jury and argued that
consumers considered college dictionary or collegiate dictionary as
generic phrases describing a type of dictionary, not a brand.
"The truth of the matter is that Random House is sick and tired of
being the fourth or fifth boy on the block who spends more than the
second, third and fourth in producing its dictionaries," Rosenthal
said during the course of the proceedings. "They wanted to join the
But Merriam-Webster's battery of witnesses testified that most
consumers thought "Webster's Collegiate Dictionary" was the
trade name of a single publisher - although the publisher that most
consumers named, Webster, is nonexistent.
"When Webster's and other words are used together, there is no
doubt they have an immediate impact," said Lile H. Deinard, Merriam's
The jury deliberated for four hours before returning its verdict Oct.
22. It ruled that Random House did not infringe on Merriam's
"Webster's Collegiate" trademark.
But it said that Random House's red-and-white dust jacket with the name
"Webster" on the spine improperly borrowed from Merriam's cover.
It awarded Merriam $1.8 million in compensatory damages and $500,000 in
Now that the jury has given its word on the issue, Merriam-Webster has
asked U.S. District Judge Lawrence McKenna to force Random House to change
the design of its dictionary. Merriam-Webster has also asked that the
judge overrule the jury and force Random House to change the name.
Random House says it will appeal.