Dictionary love

Copyeditor Mary Norris has had a fascinating career at The New Yorker over the past three decades. She writes about that, and many other things, in Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W. W. Norton). The book made the bestseller lists after its début in April 2015, as it should: it is informative, personal, and possessed of a delicate humor. I interviewed Mary last spring as part of her book tour, and she graciously allowed me to publish an excerpt of the book here. She blows the stereotype of the copyeditor (or OK’er, as she’s known at The New Yorker), showing the ranging curiosity and held-in-check pride it takes to do the job well. Because readers of this blog (and the site generally) seem to have such a taste for dictionary talk, I thought I’d share what Mary says about her go-to dictionaries.
At The New Yorker we use Webster’s—in fact, we use three editions of Webster’s, following a sort of sacred hierarchy. When I look up a word in the line of duty...I turn to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, now in its eleventh edition. We call it the Little Red Web...Merriam-Webster constantly updates its basic desk dictionary. Every home should have a Little Red Web, the way a hotel room has a Gideon Bible. If we cannot find something in the Little Red Web, our next resort is Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged), Second Edition, which we call Web II. First published in 1934, it was the Great American Dictionary and is still an object of desire: 3,194 pages long, with leisurely definitions and detailed illustrations.
Less preferred, but still helpful at The New Yorker is Webster’s Third. Norris says:
It’s good for some scientific terms, we say, patronizingly. Its look is a lot cleanier than that of Web II. Lexicology aside, it is just not as beautiful. I would not haul a Web 3 home.
After consulting these various editions sharing the name Webster’s, Norris will consult the second edition of Random House Unabridged Dictionary:
I have a weakness for Random House, and sometimes, if a word seems recent, I will go straight to RH rather than dabble in Web II or 3. I like it because it includes a lot of proper names, both historical and fictional, as if to thumb its nose at the makers of Scrabble.
Many publications do use the same dictionaries, and in that order. But here’s a confession from this comma queen: I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary. Intrigued? Read my essay “The Lowdown on Dictionaries.”

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