Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

How a special dictionary kept soldiers connected during WWII, with Peter Sokolowski

Episode Summary

988. Peter Sokolowski, an editor at Merriam-Webster, goes through the fascinating history of the Armed Services Editions, a series of books published during World War II for distribution among the troops. We look at the special problems of wartime publishing, the collaborative efforts among publishers, and the lasting influence of these books on the publishing landscape.

Episode Notes

988. Peter Sokolowski, an editor at Merriam-Webster, goes through the fascinating history of the Armed Services Editions, a series of books published during World War II for distribution among the troops. We look at the special problems of wartime publishing, the collaborative efforts among publishers, and the lasting influence of these books on the publishing landscape.

| Edited transcript with links:

| Please take our advertising survey. It helps!

| Grammarpalooza (Get texts from Mignon!): or text "hello" to (917) 540-0876.

Subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates.

Watch my LinkedIn Learning writing courses.

Peeve Wars card game

Grammar Girl books

| HOST: Mignon Fogarty

| VOICEMAIL: 833-214-GIRL (833-214-4475).

| Grammar Girl is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network.

| Theme music by Catherine Rannus.

| Grammar Girl Social Media Links: YouTube. TikTok. Facebook. Instagram. LinkedIn. Mastodon.

Episode Transcription

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and today, you're going to hear about an amazing war-time effort to get books to soldiers on the front during World War II. Millions of pocket books were delivered, giving troops a little bit of home AND a taste for paperbacks that helped change the publishing industry. And because one of those books was a dictionary, I'm here with Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, a judge in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and a State Department Specialist who travels the world promoting the English language.

Peter, welcome!

Peter: It's great to see you. And I feel like we're old friends by now. It's been a long…

Mignon: We are old friends. 

Peter: …back and forth. And it's the best of social media is Grammar Girl to me because I came to social media, and I just thought, well, I have a couple interests, and I found my world. You know, I found people who have similar interests and who do similar kinds of work and those kinds of connections have been really precious. So thank you for that. 

Mignon: Yeah, no, I appreciate it. You know, you've given me a tour of the East Coast. We went to a Scrabble competition together. You brought me some of the best chocolate I've ever had in my life. So it's good to see you here. And today we're going to talk about— because Memorial Day is coming up in the United States — I discovered that Merriam-Webster had published an Armed Services Dictionary, and it's this cute little thing with this wonderful story. And I just want you to tell us all about it.

Peter: Well, you know, it's a great story, and I'm glad you asked because it's one of those kind of wartime stories where everybody got together. You know, where the country kind of worked together. One of the examples that we can talk about is during the war, you know, Chrysler and Ford competitors, they were all making jeeps and tanks.

You know, they all went together for the war effort. That was also true in publishing, in book publishing. It turns out it came from within the Army itself. There was an office of the library at the Army and an officer went, once the war started, they said, you know, we should have government-issued GI books.

We should send books out along with the troops. And amazingly it happened very, very quickly. The heads of New York publishing houses got together and they said, this is a good idea, and let's see how we can make it. And there were a couple of obstacles. One was production. They had to produce these books very quickly.

And what they decided to do was they wanted a book that would fit inside the pockets of the uniform, of the Army uniform or the Navy uniform. And they did the kind of practical thing. They said, let's take what we've already got: the printing presses that were making "Reader’s Digest."

Now that has a very distinct trim size. If you can probably imagine it. I think, I know it's still in print. It was in print then. In fact, here at Merriam-Webster, we have some of our paper books we refer to as the digest trim size. In other words, it's a little.

Mignon: I remember that from my grandmother’s house.

Peter: Yeah, it's a little bit, a little bit bigger, a little bit taller, a little bit wider and taller than a normal mass market paperback.

It's often, it's a little bit thinner. And so here at Merriam-Webster in house, we say a “digest” to refer to a paperback in that trim size. But "Reader's Digest" have these big printing presses. They were printing millions of magazines. So what happened was they typeset different books, and there were books for the troops. They chose all different kinds of titles, ended up being 1,300 titles. A huge number of books and among them, just to cite some examples, "The Grapes of Wrath," "Tom Sawyer," "Huck Finn." The stories of, the mysteries of Agatha Christie, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." You know, so they were not just classics, but contemporary works.

They were pretty careful to keep things away from politics. Kind of understandably, they said, you know, nothing that's going to kind of create an argument in the field. And so they just said, you know, classics that included Shakespeare, that included kind of the, some of the great myths as well.

But then they also said, let's make a dictionary, and they came to Merriam-Webster. And so, just to continue with the "Reader's Digest" thing, what they decided to do was they would typeset the book twice, they doubled it. In other words, they would typeset a page, exactly the same above and below and then run the printing press and then cut the book in half. And that meant that you produce two books for every one that you printed.

Mignon: So were they, I'm sorry, were they half the size of, essentially a "Reader's Digest" then? Is that how that worked? 

Peter: If you think of a "Reader's Digest," cut it in half horizontally and you get one of these Armed Services editions. Yeah. And so, in fact, I have one in my hands here, and you can show it to you online and you can see that there is, this would have been the size of a, of a "Reader's Digest" and that allow, of course the efficiency was obvious. You're making two books for one.

Mignon: Yeah. So it's really short. 

Peter: Really short and it was printed across, still horizontally, so across the page and in the case of this dictionary, three columns and what they did for novels, they would…

Mignon: I'm sorry, let's describe that so people can see. So it's got a blue cover, and it reminds me of like a reporter's notebook, the size, but on its side. So it's long and short.

Peter: You know what's interesting, is it's almost exactly the trim size of a smartphone, when you think about it. It's just a little bit, it's the exact height of my smartphone and maybe a centimeter wider. And what's interesting also, I've been looking at older dictionaries, and by that I mean from the early 1600s.

And they were often this size also. Usually vertically. In other words, it's amazing how small books often used to be, especially dictionaries which we think of as, you know, as huge books, you know, really, really big books. This particular one is in three columns, and the columns are separated by little vertical lines.

And that just to kind of help the reader. I do know that for the novels that they printed, they did print them in two columns on the page so that you wouldn't read across a very wide page and then your eye go back, and they found it was easier to read in, kind of in columns.

So they would print those novels in columns. But to give a little bit more background about the Merriam-Webster involvement, Merriam-Webster had created a little tiny dictionary beginning in 1877. I have one right here, and it was called Webster's Handy Dictionary.

Mignon: So handy. 

Peter: Webster's Handy, and it's not much bigger than the Armed Services Edition.

And it's a cute little book, and it became a huge success. And so we, it was reproduced, there’s one, this one's called, I don't know if you can see it. It says Webster's New Handy. And in fact, this is the one that was used for the Armed Services Edition. So they took this, and they did one other thing, which I think is really amazing. And it just kind of brings that moment in time to us, which is they added new words to the beginning of the dictionary that the newly added words to the beginning of the dictionary. And this list of words is unbelievable. I'm just going to read a few of them. These are new words added in the 1943 edition.

They included: "air lock," "blitzkrieg," "bombsight," "commando," "concentration camp," "fascism," "Flying Fortress," "foxhole," "Gestapo," "isolationist," "Nazi," "quisling," "sub-machine gun," "task force," and "walkie talkie." So those words really speak to the moment. And I knew that the word "fascism," for example, was used in Merriam-Webster print advertisements in the late 1930s.

You could get the "Atlantic Magazine" and someone sent me an old copy of that magazine because it had this advertisement in it. And it was a photograph, very 1930s, black and white, of kind of a couple at home. And it was sort of, “Darling, what does fascism mean?” And then said, “Oh, you know, pick up your new copy of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.”

And the fact is, in 1936 or '37, at that time, fascism was being reported as the political party of Mussolini's Italy. So it was a word that was appearing in newspapers in America in just news reports of European news. It wasn't yet, you know, a wartime kind of footing. But it was a word that people had trouble with. It was a brand new word in the language. And so then as now, as you know, we released new words a few times a year, and we announced them. It's exactly the same. We've been doing it forever. But it's interesting to me that they thought, “You know what, having 10 or a dozen pages of these new words at the beginning of the dictionary will also kind of underscore why we're fighting,” you know, in other words, this was a patriotic effort.

Mignon: I imagine they got the books, and they opened them up, and they could immediately tell, like, this was made for us. 

Peter: Yes. Absolutely. And you know what's kind of moving to me is that these were designed to be passed on. You would read your book and hand it to another soldier. What they found in the case of this particular printing was that they weren't being passed on. The soldiers kept them. And so the Armed Services Merriam-Webster Dictionary was the only one that was reprinted immediately, and they made many of them. I don't know what the numbers are. There may be as many as a million that were printed, but it was certainly in the high six figures. And so these soldiers and many of them came back and said, you know, they went to the G.I. Bill. They went to college. Their lives were changed. And in fact, one thing that's interesting in an article I found online about these books is an incredibly kind of prescient reflection by W.W. Norton himself, the actual founder of the publishing house Norton Books. And here's his quote. He said, “The very fact that millions of men will have an opportunity to learn what a book is and what it can mean is likely now and in post-war years to exert a tremendous influence on the post-war course of industry.” And boy, was he right. Because the fact is, paperback books did exist just before the war.

You're probably familiar with Penguin Books, Penguin Classics. They sort of invented the category in the mid-1930s. And right at the end of the 30s, 1939, in America, they copied the Penguin Books, pocket books. You probably remember the little kangaroo with the logo. Those are the original paperback books.

And then right after the war, Merriam-Webster in 1947, after the success of the Armed Services Edition, we produced the first mass market dictionary, 1947. And it was originally sold for 25 cents. And it is still in print today. And of course an updated version, and I think it's $6.50 today, but it's our best selling dictionary.

Not only that, it's the best selling reference work of any kind in the United States. So I like to think that our kind of principal product, it's just our mass market red paperback dictionary really, in many ways, comes out of this wartime exercise.

Mignon: That's amazing. Yeah. So are these Armed Services Dictionaries, are they, you know, so many of them were printed. Are they easy to find now or are they collector's items? Like, how hard is it to get one? 

Peter: No, they're very hard to find. And in fact, in the office, I have a little stack of them in mint condition because they were simply left alone, as you know, with paper, things wear off. And that, you know, reading about the Armed Services Edition, there were a number of things that the publishers in New York wanted to ensure. They didn't want to interfere with their own sales later.

They did not publish textbooks or information or like manuals from medicine, or that kind of stuff was limited to if there were, for example, a field medicine manual had to be published by the military, they had to make it for themselves and issue that. And also the authors and publishers received one penny per copy. And so this was a case where the American publishing industry had a single customer, the United States government and they bought everything that was printed and then delivered them. But that was still pretty good for everybody. In other words, the publisher would get one penny, the author would get one penny.

So two cents each, I believe for each of these. But the thing is they were also sort of designed to fall apart. I mean, they were designed, they were designed with very inexpensive paper, with simple paper covers, and it was understood by everyone that they were unlikely to survive in large numbers, and therefore, again, to compete with anything that they would try to ... They didn't want, for example, to have a warehouse full of these at the end of the war that someone would sell and dump at a loss, but that means the publishers would now lose revenue on their own titles.

And they kind of calculated these very simply. They began with print runs of, I believe, 30,000 and then they went up to 50,000, and then he went up to 150,000. So that what they had found was volume was important, but no, very few survived. You can look on eBay. They're not intrinsically super valuable, but I think if you were to have a solid collection of what, for example, is known as the D-Day edition, because there were certain a print run of a dozen titles or so that were issued to those soldiers just before D-Day, and so they all were carrying the same books. So I bet if you had a mint condition collection of that short run of 20 or 30 titles, that might be something that a collector would find valuable. You can find groups of these on eBay in the hundreds of dollars.

So they're not, you know, they're not intrinsically very valuable books, but if you have them in good condition, for the right collector and especially a collector, for example, who collects uniforms or military paraphernalia from a certain unit and knows, “Oh, that unit was issued that book” you know, so there may be that kind of precision.

And the other thing I can show you is a hardcover version of exactly the typeset Armed Services Edition. This is the exact same word list with the same new words at the beginning. And it says in the front, it's copyright 1943. This surprises me because apparently this was produced in 1943.

But the reason it surprises me is because most production stopped during the war, you know. There was no metal, there was no leather, there was no paper. And I actually once, I don't have it with me. I found a memo, a monthly report from 1943 — internal report that did as all reports do, you know, here's sales from last month, here's editorial progress on the new edition.

And by the way, we have run out of paper, no more dictionaries will be pressed by Merriam-Webster because of the war effort. And it was written with a kind of pride, the fact that you know, we have done all we can. And so there was, as you probably know, if you ever think about this, you know, there are no cars from 1943 and 1944 in America. You know, there's no such thing as a 1944 Chevy or something like that because everything went to the war effort. 

And that's true for Merriam-Webster dictionaries as well because it's an industrial process, you know, it took a lot. So we did print some of these small paperback civilian editions of the Armed Services one. And that's where publishing stopped for a number of years. 

Mignon: Amazing. Wonderful. I just imagine the soldiers on the front, you know, sitting there maybe with their flashlights with the dictionary, you know, at night, I don't know, unwinding, reading definitions. 

Peter: And you know what's interesting is that they're referred to in letters home. They make appearances in movies. In "Band of Brothers," there's a scene in which one of the soldiers is reading and kind of arguing with another soldier in a foxhole, but it's a moment when he was reading.

So it was kind of a calm moment, kind of a quiet moment. And you saw him reading, I believe it was "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," you know, which was a very popular novel in the forties. And so it is depicted, but also one of the accounts refer to these additions as a few square inches of home.

Mignon: Mmm.

Peter: Words, they got, even if they didn't get mail that day or they didn't get a care package, they might have gotten issued the newest batch of Armed Services Editions that were brought to the front, because they were everywhere in the war.

They were in the Navy, in the Army, the Pacific, in the Atlantic. They were just, you know, incredibly well distributed. It's an example of America doing something really, really well.

Mignon: Yeah, I mean, imagine just getting them to the people must have been a challenge. 

Peter: Exactly. And actually there was a funny, I did read at one point, they actually made criteria. They said they would, because they were sent out in kind of batches. So that you would get a batch, which would have one or two copies of each from that batch. And they said, OK, we’ll send this batch to every unit of 150 men that was on active duty.

But they would send one batch to every 50 men in a field hospital. In other words, they were going to have more time to read, and so they gave them three times as many books. And then they would also send one full batch to any advanced unit, no matter how big it was. It might've been 12 men.

It might've been 1,200 men, but they would make sure that to the forward units, they would also get some, and of course who knows if they all got to the right place. But I do think it's amazing to think that, you know, reading, just exactly as Norton said, you know, reading, in those moments was probably very important because you're connecting with your culture.

Mignon: Yeah. Great. Well, we're going to take a quick ad break, but when we come back, we're actually going to talk about the Spelling Bee, because Peter is also on, starting on Tuesday, going to be judging the Scripps National Spelling Bee. So, we'll be right back.

Welcome back. So this show comes out on Thursday, and on Tuesday, May 28th, just in a few days, the Scripps National Spelling Bee starts. Peter is a judge, and you know, I'm looking for the inside scoop on the Spelling Bee, Peter.

You mentioned during the break that you think the pronouncer is a very important role. Tell me more about that. 

Peter: Absolutely. And many of you will have seen the pronouncer. His name is Jacques Bailey, Dr. Jacques Bailey. He's a professor of classics of Greek and Latin literature at the University of Vermont. Also by the way, he won the National Spelling Bee when he was 14 years old. Back in whatever it was, 1982 or something.

And he is kind of the perfect example of what a pronouncer should be. And what I mean by that is the semiotics of the situation look adversarial. What, you know, it looks like it's the student against the pronouncer, but in fact, it's the pronouncer who is helping the speller, and he provides as much information as the dictionary can provide, which is to say the customary pronunciation, often with a variation. So he will say the word sometimes two, sometimes three different ways, or even more occasionally. But he will give the etymology, he will give the example sentence, sometimes a couple of example sentences, and of course he'll give the definition.

And he will provide that information as many times as the speller asks for it. And so he's there to help. And also what he does is he responds and engages with the speller. So one of the things that you'll notice for really competitive spellers is they repeat the word immediately. So if the word is "sesquipedalian," then the speller will say, “'Sesquipedalian.' May I have the definition?”

In other words, they'll say it out loud. And that's actually a really, really good habit for competitive spelling, because if the speller speaks the word, and the judges or the pronouncer don't hear it exactly the way he said it, we will encourage them to say it again. Now we're not coaching them, but we will ask the speller, “Could you repeat the word again?” and then we'll say, “Could you listen to the pronouncer again? Could you listen?” And I remember one time it was, there was a problem with the speller’s understanding, I believe it was a nasalized vowel, like a French sounding “N” for example.

Mignon: So give me an example. 

Peter: Any word in English that ends in E-N-T or A-N-T is a word that ultimately came from French. You know, there are words that we have, like "croissant," that we do kind of pronounce with that nasalized “N.” And I forget what the word was, but it was like that, where the end of the word was kind of E-N or A-N or A-N-T, "croissant."

And he said it now, Jacques Bailey, he has a French sounding name. He speaks French. His parents are from French, Switzerland, I think. And he said it probably 35 times for that speller. Said it exactly the same way. And I'm just using "croissant." And of course that is not a sound that is in English phonotactics.

It is not part of English sound. However, we do show in our phonetic transcriptions in the dictionary, and you can see that with a little “N” as a superscript, when you see that in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, that means that it's a nasalized “N” not a pronounced “N.” So, it wouldn't be "croissant," it’s "croissant."

And so ultimately he said, “Come to the front of the stage,” because they were maybe 10 feet apart. And so the speller left the microphone, and walked up four feet to the edges, and he said, “Look at my mouth.” You know, again, not coaching, but just, if the speller can't reproduce the sound of the word, it's very likely that they will misspell the word, you know. So that's, I thought, a very good example of really professional pronouncing. And another way that this is expressed is when the speller asks for information about the history of a word, they may ask for something that's too specific. In other words, something that is not noted in the etymology itself. We limit ourselves to what is given in the etymology.

So, they will often say, “Is this word from Greek, or is this word from French?” That's an easy yes, you know, that, yes. But then they might say, if the word ends, for example, in E-T-T-E, the speller might ask a question “Is part of this word from the French diminutive adjectival form?”

And now that's going into detail about morphology and French spelling. And in fact, the etymology in an English language dictionary will often just say, this word comes from French. In other words, we don't break down the French. We don't etymologize the French. We etymologize the English. 

And so in that instance, you will hear our pronouncer respond with something like, “I don't see that here,” because what we don't want to do is have a situation where one speller gets more information than another speller, because the next speller's word may not have such a compound part that you can break down that way that gives you a clue.

In other words, if you had a word like “clarinet,” say, you might not know there is a word “clarette” that ends in T-T-E. It's a kind of wine. [Editors note: This is an alternative spelling of the more common word "claret."] But if you just speak the word, it sounds like “clarinet.” And so the speller could say, “Hey, does this have the feminine diminutive ending?” And if you said, yes, now that speller knows this word ends in T-T-E as opposed to E-T, right? And so, the fact is we try to keep it fair by only reporting what is given in print in the etymology in the dictionary. And again, to just reiterate the point, we at Merriam-Webster, we etymologize the English. We don't etymologize the etymon. So if we say this word comes from French, we don't go back further and say, well, the French word came from Latin, which took it from Greek, you know, all the rest, because that's going down another rabbit hole, and it's all valid.

It's just that we, at some point, we have to put a stop to the exercise, you know. We have to basically say, if we can only provide what's in print in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, the official dictionary of the National Spelling Bee, and we're going to do the same for every single speller, and that's to keep it fair. In order to be fun, it has to be fair. 

Mignon: So I presume that the kids, when they make it to that level, they know that if they hear “I don't see that here,” it means a very specific thing. It doesn't mean it's not true. It means that they can't say, essentially.

Peter: And often they will take it as a confirmation. But the other thing that you'll see is that they lose no time. You know, once they hear that, they just move on. They'll ask another question because these, at that level, they are so well rehearsed, and they're so well studied. And honestly, you know, my favorite moments of the bee are toward the end at the finals, you will get an obscure word, and the speller will say, you know, “Does this come from the Arabic word meaning an elephant used for carrying 30 soldiers?”

And you'll just marvel at the specificity of the knowledge of that speller. And that's why it's the Olympics of language. You know, I mean, it goes way beyond what anyone would need or really what most people know. And I really celebrate the champions because they are just at the next level of knowledge and way beyond, I mean, I personally have never known my spelling or etymology as well as these spellers do.

Mignon: It must be such a joy to hang out with those kids. Like, what are some of your favorite experiences?

Peter: You know, one of the nice things now is I've been doing this since 2008, being part of the bee, giving lectures and representing the dictionary. And now on the word panel, the group of people who choose the words for the next bee, several of the members of the panel are past winners.

And these are spellers who I gave the trophy to, or I presented the award to when they were 13 or 14 or 15 years old. And now they are in grad school, or they are in their young careers, and three or four of them are on the word panel. And I just love working with these people. And they're, of course, brilliant beyond belief.

Mignon: Yeah. I don’t know, do you know where people can watch the bee? I know sometimes it changes.

Peter: That’s right. It's, for the last couple of years, it's on ION, ION. I-O-N, which is the Scripps Television Network. And that is, I'm told, available nationwide, and it often comes in your package, with whatever digital subscription you have. It might be one of those free channels. And so look for that, and also I'm pretty sure you can stream it as well.

The final is Thursday night of Bee Week, as always. But there will be the preliminaries, and the second rounds through on Tuesday. All day, we're going to be spelling, I believe, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. It's a big group of spelling, a big group of spellers, and so we're going to be spelling.

And then on Wednesday, we'll have the quarterfinals. And we'll get down to the semifinals on Wednesday in the afternoon. And then once the spellers get down to about 12 or 15, that's when they stop the competition and basically say, we'll finish this live on TV for the finals.

Mignon: Amazing. That sounds intense. Well, Peter Sokolowski, thank you so much for being here. Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster, judge for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. We really appreciated hearing about the Armed Services Edition of the Dictionary and the bee. Thanks so much.

Peter: It’s great to see you. Happy Memorial Day.

Mignon: Thank you. 

I hope you enjoyed the show. I'll be back Tuesday with a regular episode about a question both philosophical and practical: What is a Word? And then make sure to check your feed again Thursday for our next installment of Grammar Girl Conversations when I'll be talking with Paul Anthony Jones about why English doesn't have gender anymore, which languages are the hardest to learn (and why), the strange story of how we got the letter Q, and more from his book, "Why is this a question?"

That's all. Thanks for listening.