Word came this past week that Merriam-Webster would update its dictionary, but the update would be online only — marking the end of the last remaining print version of an American dictionary. When Mister Boomer learned of this news, he couldn’t help but reference dictionary memories of his youth. Taking a page out of that history, one might say dictionaries pretty much defined boomer school days.
Every school kid knows the story of Samuel Johnson’s influential dictionary of the mid-1700s, but in the U.S., the task of documenting language in the burgeoning country fell to Noah Webster. In 1806 he published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, then followed it two decades later, in 1828, with An American Dictionary of the English Language.
After Webster died, George and Charles Merriam bought the publishing rights to his books and released dictionaries under the Webster company name. Fifty years later, in 1898, the Merriam-Webster Company began its Collegiate Dictionary series, which many boomers will remember as the dictionary title from their school days.
Mister Boomer’s first dictionary was acquired in the third grade. The students in his grade were all required to have one, so the school sold the officially-approved version; it was a hardcover book with a red cover, but Mister B can’t recall if it was a Webster or Merriam-Webster title, or something else. It was that dictionary that served Mister B throughout his elementary and high school years.
The dictionary was an inherent part of a boomer’s learning experience. Boomers had to know how to use the book to look up words for class, and how to understand the definitions and pronunciation keys. Dictionaries were sources used to expand vocabulary and as an indispensable tool when unfamiliar words appeared while reading novels and textbooks.
The dictionary was considered such an important part of the education process that several publishers released their own versions. Mister Boomer’s parents, like all boomer parents, wanted their children to succeed in school, so they invested in a mammoth-sized Funk & Wagnell’s dictionary. It was an added bonus that packets of pages could be purchased at the A&P supermarket each week. When Mister B’s father brought home the groceries, Mister B and his sister would unwrap the packets and slide the pre-punched pages onto metal pegs that were attached to the free hard cover. When completed, the book was massive; it resembled the oversized dictionary that sat on a pedestal inside every public library of the time. It was fine for homework, but hardly portable, so it resided on the bottom shelf in the hutch that contained the family’s Funk & Wagnell encyclopedias.
Mister B’s next dictionary was the only one he actually purchased — or rather, co-purchased with Sister Boomer. One Saturday morning in early 1970, there was a knock at the door. Sister Boomer answered it and was greeted by a salesman peddling Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. She was impressed by the addition of the “Student Handbook” that included information on English, Literature, History, Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, Chemistry, Music and more. She came to Mister B and convinced him go in halves with her on the purchase. The price was right, so the two bought the dictionary. Mister B still has it.
Dictionaries used to be essential books for everyone, especially school children. Now any word is just a search away on a smartphone and it is highly doubtful that anyone born after 2000 will ever own a print version. Dictionaries have joined the ever-growing list of items that boomers found common in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, that have either completely changed their form or disappeared altogether.
What defined your relationship with dictionaries, boomers?