Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 10, 1991
Why dictionaries define themselves as Websters
Report 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 owns them.

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 - Webster's.

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 triple.

"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 dictionaries."

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 dictionary sales.

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 group."

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 attorney.

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 punitive damages.

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. home page   
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