COLUMN ONE : Unabridged Publicity Blitz : A sales war is pushing dictionaries to redefine their image. Venerable Merriam-Webster is sending its scholars on the road, armed with chocolates and inflatable store mascots.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

E. Ward Gilman, a bespectacled bear of a man who has devoted 35 years to the scholarly art of writing dictionaries, recently found himself being coached in the crasser craft of peddling them.

Use your hands, the consultant exhorted Gilman and seven other lexicographers about to begin the most ambitious book tour ever mobilized to promote a dictionary. Smile! Project! Sit up straight! Be enthusiastic! Be yourselves! And get the title right.

"Whether I'll remember everything they told me to do, I don't know," mused Gilman, director of defining for the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which is being launched this month. "Like today--I forgot to wear a necktie."

Dictionaries--those secular bibles, those gray-flannel guides to the language that defines us as human--are being mass-marketed like beer, with the help of everything from inflatable mascots to sweepstakes to sponsorships of TV quiz shows (major league sports for the pointy-headed).

Merriam-Webster approached the National Aeronautics and Space Administration about putting a dictionary in space and briefly considered having its book be the first to go bungee jumping. Rival Houghton Mifflin Co. sent a swarm of librarians, clutching its new American Heritage Dictionary, thundering up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the theme from "Rocky."

It is all part of a battle among the country's four major dictionary publishers. Their business has grown more fiercely competitive in recent years as big office supply and bookstore chains have swallowed up smaller independents and put the squeeze on publishers.

"People say: 'It seems like such a polite business,' " said Susan Leslie, who promoted everything from lipstick to Lawn Doctor before becoming marketing director at Merriam-Webster. "I say: 'Yeah, it's polite editorially, but we're rather impolite--or have been forced to become so--in a sales and marketing sense.' "

Lexicography itself is still a gentlemanly business. Dictionary editors pass their days in hushed offices that resemble university libraries. Useful job qualifications include patience, a linguistics degree and something known in German as Sprachgefuhl-- a natural sensitivity for what is linguistically correct.

The work is consuming. One pronunciation editor used to plan his vacations around places whose names he did not know how to pronounce. Andy Sparks, a senior editor at Webster's New World Dictionary, counts himself among the hardy few who have read every word printed in the New Yorker for 30 years.

"No question, there is an element of drudgery in this," said Frederick C. Mish, Merriam-Webster's editor-in-chief, chuckling over a bit of lexicography humor: Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, defined a lexicographer as a maker of dictionaries--and "a harmless drudge."

Most of the time, "you're not interacting with the public," said Mish, leaving open the possibility that that might not be such a terrible fate. "You're interacting with 3-by-5 slips of paper."

Now, 150 years after the death of Noah Webster, Mish and his colleagues are hitting the road on a 30-city tour of the United States and Canada--the centerpiece of a $2.5-million marketing blitz surrounding the release of their new edition, which has been a decade in the making.

Company salespeople have been equipped with Merriam-Webster souvenirs to endear their product to heads of chains and clerks--baseball caps, sunglasses, chocolates and other gizmos bearing the new slogan: "Not Just Webster. Merriam-Webster."

(The name Webster can be used by any company--and pretty much is. But Merriam-Webster has the rights to master lexicographer Noah's work and tries to underscore its lineage.)

In bookstores, the company will station an inflatable figure called Joe Collegiate, which has its dictionary for a head and torso. Designed to stake out desirable floor space, Mr. Collegiate helped bag a whopping 400,000 entries for the company's new college scholarship sweepstakes last year.

There will be television ads too, as well as sponsorships on two new quiz shows and promotions on "Jeopardy" and "The Price Is Right." The 10th edition is also a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club--a coup because it is the first time a dictionary has been chosen.

"We laid siege to the Book-of-the-Month Club," said Joseph J. Esposito, who began lobbying the club in 1990, six weeks after becoming Merriam-Webster's president. "This was not a simple lunch date at a New York restaurant. . . . It took two years to consummate the deal."

The public relations firm that represented Judith Krantz has been hired to help with the launch.

And for marketing, Esposito enlisted Susan Leslie. "I was looking for . . . someone who understood how to make books sexy," said Esposito, who described Leslie fondly, in such terms as wild and nuts . "We were trying to come up with publicity gimmicks . . . and I discovered she was talking to NASA to get the dictionary in space." (The plan did not pan out.)

The Merriam-Webster campaign follows a blitz by Houghton Mifflin, which launched its American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, nine months ago with a rap song, giveaways on "Wheel of Fortune" and a toll-free number, 1-800-NEW WORDS.

Callers could check in, day or night, to hear actor Tony Randall nattering about words--everything from the longest one in the dictionary ( dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane , a.k.a. DDT) to the history of the word nerd (first noted in Dr. Seuss' "If I Ran The Zoo").

The word yo prompted an extravaganza at the Philadelphia museum that Rocky Balboa made famous. Before TV cameras and wearing "Yo" T-shirts, librarians charged up the steps and flipped open their dictionaries to what the promotions manager called "the Yo page."

The dictionary also will appear in a movie starring Jack Nicholson, according to Sandy Goroff-Mailly, a promotions manager for Houghton Mifflin--just as soft drinks and cigarettes have made film cameos under similar product placement deals.

All of which has set a standard Merriam-Webster's Leslie feels she must top.

"We have to be that much finer-tuned, that much flashier, that much better," said Leslie, who refers to the competition as "the $39.95 dictionary," lest anyone forget that the American Heritage is almost twice the price of her own. "Because, as you know, there's a saturation point."

The roots of the dictionary struggle extend back to the mid-19th Century. Noah Webster died, leaving copies of his 1841 unabridged dictionary unsold. George and Charles Merriam, Massachusetts printers and booksellers, bought the dictionaries and the rights to update and revise.

The Merriams condensed the dictionary into a single volume and cut its price--two crucial steps toward making it a household item. But for much of the next century, people tended to hang onto a dictionary for most of a lifetime, seeing no need to replace it.

"People had one dictionary, which they may have inherited, like a Bible, from their grandparents," said Sol Steinmetz, executive editor of Random House dictionaries in New York City. "It never occurred to anybody that words changed, meanings changed."

Then came the revolutionary Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Third Edition, published in 1961 by the Merriams' company. It incorporated a stunning 100,000 new words and meanings that had made their way into the language in the 27 years since the previous edition.

Its editors had rejected many of the conventions of lexicography. Most notably, they had dispensed with "prescriptivism" in favor of "descriptivism," telling readers not how they should use the language but simply how it was being used.

People were scandalized. Newspapers editorialized against the dictionary. Several rival dictionaries eventually appeared in reaction against it. In the decade-long furor, public awareness about dictionaries rose dramatically. As Steinmetz sees it, they "began to be salable items."

By the mid-1980s, Merriam-Webster was looking vulnerable. Rival books began coming out fast and furious: A Random House unabridged in 1987. A college-level edition from Simon & Schuster, which publishes Webster's New World Dictionary, in 1988. Another from Random House in 1991. And the American Heritage, Third Edition, in 1992.

"The Simon & Schuster was conceived of as an opportunity to steal market share from Merriam-Webster. Ditto at Random House," said Esposito, who has worked at all three companies. "A lot of people thought that the market leader . . . could be taken. That's what started the competitive fever."

Now, Merriam-Webster is fighting back.

"We have definitely put the market on notice that we will not take the situation lying down," said Esposito, who believes at least one competitor will drop out. "It's very hard to make money in the dictionary business. . . . We are expecting that the market will shake out."

About 2 million so-called college-level, or desk, dictionaries are sold every year at an average price of $20. Merriam-Webster, whose Collegiate dictionary is one of the best-selling hardback books ever, has long been thought to possess about half of those sales.

But in recent years, large chains have gobbled up many independent stores where dictionaries were traditionally sold. And they have begun flexing their newfound muscle, demanding deeper discounts and special advertising support from publishers in return for stocking their books.

As Leslie sees it, whichever publisher offers the best deal and the most visible marketing support will end up supplying that chain. Hence, Joe Collegiate and Merriam-Webster chocolates.

*

Merriam-Webster's 40 employees operate out of a two-story, brick building on a leafy street in this small, western Massachusetts city. Outside, the place looks like an old grammar school; the lobby has the stodgy quality of a place where a mayor might hold receptions.

But upstairs is one of the largest collections of information about the English language under one roof--row upon row of card catalogues packed with 14.5 million file cards of "citations," the stuff of which good dictionaries are painstakingly made.

Each citation consists of a word or phrase and the context in which it appeared in print. A citation reader has found it, copied it on a card and filed it away, to be used eventually, along with the other citations for that word, in devising or revising a definition.

Every editor is expected to spend an hour or two each day "reading for citation"--poring over anything from the Boston Globe and Scientific American to menus and yogurt containers in pursuit of new terms, usages, meanings, coinages and other shifts in the language.

"The actual process is not that different from 100 years ago," said Mish, who has six typists working full time transcribing tens of thousands of citations onto file cards. "We're working on this all the time. It's . . . the heart and soul of what we do."

Down the hall, Brian M. Sietsema, the company's 30-year-old pronunciation editor, sits in a tidy office with an impressive boombox at ear level. He is monitoring America's spoken language for future revisions, scribbling down citations from talk shows, congressional debates, call-in psychologists and the news.

Not long ago, he heard Jerry Seinfeld pronounce hypnotize as if the n were an m . Rush Limbaugh said tumult as if it contained a double m . Two citations Sietsema is especially pleased with, for their authoritativeness, are Stephen King's pronunciation of werewolf and John Cage's way of saying the musical term solfege . (It's sal-FEZH)

"The problem is, I can't turn my head off," Sietsema complained. "I have a hard time enjoying movies."

Merriam-Webster's citation program, widely recognized as among the best, landed about 10,000 new words and meanings in the new dictionary. They tend to mirror the preoccupations of U.S. culture--from pancetta and spanakopita to balloon angioplasty, Slimnastics, safe sex, date rape, ozone hole and hip-hop.

Those words and others will be counted upon to sell new dictionaries. Yet editors say there is little evidence that new words are germinating faster than before. Instead, they are getting more notice thanks to the proliferation of media outlets and their insatiable hunger for trends.

"The very addition of Fox as a fourth network has had an enormous effect on what's out there," said Jesse T Sheidlower, a dictionary editor at Random House. Television shows oriented toward adolescents and blacks have brought dozens of new words into mainstream use.

"New words are the marketable thing about a dictionary," said Gilman, of Merriam-Webster. "So . . . we make a flap about that. Few people care, you see, that a sense of the word saucy that went out of use in the 17th Century came back in the 20th. Who cares about saucy ?"

Well, Gilman does. A few years ago, he wrote to a friend about a point of grammar. With the friend's response, he enclosed a package of ready-made potato mix. "For saucier potatoes, add more milk," read the fine print--which is now a citation under saucier in Merriam-Webster's file.

"Lo and behold," Gilman marveled. "It came back all on its own after 200 years of disuse!"

Which says something about why Gilman, Sietsema, Mish and the others seemed cheerful the other day in the face of their foray into the world of peddling dictionaries. After all, it is going to mean only a few weeks of salesmanship out of 10 years of scholarship; soon, it will be back to saucy and solfege .

"My feeling is it doesn't matter whether it changes my job or not," Sietsema said. "We have to do it. Because we could make a perfect dictionary but if we didn't sell it, I'd be out of a job."

Changing Language

Here are some of the 10,000 new words and meanings in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition, including dates of first known use:

* audio-animatronic adj . (1964): being or consisting of a lifelike electromechanical figure of a person or animal that has synchronized movement and sound

* bustier n . (1979): a tight-fitting, often strapless top worn as a brassiere or outer garment

* greenmail n . (1983): the practice of buying enough of a company's stock to threaten a hostile takeover and reselling it to the company at a price above market value; also , the money paid for such stock

* ozone hole n . (1986): an area of the ozone layer (as near the South Pole) that is seasonally depleted of ozone

* pancetta n . (1974): unsmoked bacon used especially in Italian cuisine

* safe sex n . (1985): sexual activity and especially sexual intercourse in which various measures (as the use of latex condoms or the practice of monogamy) are taken to avoid disease (as AIDS) transmitted by sexual contact

* vaporware n . (1984): a new computer-related product that has been widely advertised but is not yet available

* veejay n . (1981): an announcer of a program (as on television) that features music videos

* veg out v.i . (1980): to spend time idly or passively

Some words have been omitted from the new edition because they have fallen into disuse, such as:

* fishyback n . (circa 1950): the movement of truck trailers or freight containers by barge or ship (Compare birdyback, piggyback)

* Marsquake n . (1974): an agitation of the surface of Mars comparable to an earthquake

* tattletale gray n . (1943): a grayish white (from the suggestion made by a soap advertiser that such a color observed in clothes hanging out to dry betrays inefficient laundering)

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