Picturing a new Webster’s

The illustrator of the newest edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary explains the impetus behind its pictures.

Just as extreme makeovers and the new and improved Demi Moore are having their cultural moment, so, too, in a much more understated way, is the latest update of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. In July, the 11th edition made its debut, and along with the 10,000 new words and meanings (for a total of 165,000), 230 new illustrations were added (total: 725). The man responsible for deciding how to depict which nouns—and, with the sole exception of rampant, every drawing illustrates a noun—is Jeffrey Middleton, who rendered all the new images himself. Middleton says the advantage of the pen-and-ink pictures over photographs is that “you can emphasize certain aspects; you can get closer to the abstraction of what the item is.” Here he explains some of the thinking behind the dictionary’s pictures.

The wild kingdom

“I would have loved to have drawn some dinosaurs,” Middleton says, but his bosses did not want anything like that—"you can’t be sure what they really looked like.” But then Middleton and his colleagues have probably wondered whether their predecessors actually looked at some of the animals they drew. For laughs around the office, Middleton would pull old drawings from Merriam-Webster’s archives, which go back 100 years and include a monkey that looks “for all the world like Ross Perot” and a goofy, grinning caribou.

“I cannot imagine why anyone would draw huge eyelashes on animals or make them smile,” he says. Middleton updated an earlier Pepe Le Pew version of a skunk from the 1920s by sitting with a live one at the Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, Mass.

“They told me he was de-scented, and I had trust.”

The illustration for tiger cat, drawn from a photo of his sister-in-law’s mother’s cat, was a little more difficult to come by: “I chased that one around on the kitchen floor to get a picture of it. You can tell by its expression that it’s irritated. It’s not a happy cat.” (That experience, by the way, is not why the 11th edition apparently favors showing dogs over cats. “I love cats; I’d like to get a cat,” Middleton says. “It’s my understanding, though, that a lot of people like to see dogs in there.")

The human animal was not exempt from Middleton’s revisions: “I worked at a medical library for many years, staring at a human skeleton across from me, so that was a picture I changed—the old skeleton had a severe case of scoliosis. I did replace that, and I am interested in anatomy, so I know my zygomatic arches from my cubits, and C1 from L2.”

The human element

For pictures that required more than bones for models, Middleton sent out casting-call messages to the Merriam-Webster’s staff. To one request for a volunteer foot for the snowshoe illustration, the math editor replied: “Yes, please immortalize my foot for eternity. Eternity—you never know, sometimes the illustrations do pop back up in later editions.” (The former illustrations editor used her family as models, posing her father in waders and her sister in a mortarboard in the 10th edition, for example.) In casting his pictures, Middleton brought a modern sensibility to the task: “You go through the old dictionaries, you find that cultural bias of men doing the lever, operating this or that. Or wearing overalls. For overalls, I used a female model.” Same, too, for lever.

For pulley, Middleton had to face a different concern: “I had an editor throw a rope over a pipe in the basement, and I walked out of the room, and someone almost panicked because they thought he was going to hang himself down there.”

But despite his willingness to draw co-workers into the 11th edition, Middleton refused to include his own countenance. That’s his hand holding the tuning fork, but he says: “I won’t draw my own face. You just feel sort of silly.”

The personal is the pictorial

Still, Middleton admits that autobiography informs many of his illustration choices.

“I did get away with doing things like a volcano, because it’s a personal interest of mine. Areas where I have personal knowledge, it’s very heavily biased in that direction.”

The chaise longue, for example, is the very one that he and his older brother used as a teeter-totter when they were kids (much to his father’s displeasure). Because Middleton has spent much of his life in Oregon and Arizona, the flora and fauna of those states also reside in the pages of the 11th. Middleton says: “I thought everyone knew what a thunder egg was. I didn’t know it was an Oregon colloquialism. And I really wanted to put it in because I think it’s a cool thing.”

The streetcar was modeled on the one that runs through Tucson; the devil’s claw he found in his aunt and uncle’s backyard, near Saguaro National Park. There was a review process, and Middleton had to answer to higher-ups, of course, “so they make sure I don’t get out of hand.”

You’ve been erased

Beyond getting at the essence of a thing, another reason for using illustrations instead of photographs is to keep the dictionary from looking out of date in the 10 years (on average) between editions.

“Someone may see a photograph and compare it with something they see on the street, and they may say it doesn’t look the same,” Middleton explains.

While many of the new entries come from technology—botox, active-matrix and dot-commer are all additions to the 11th edition—illustrations tend not to.

“Anything technology-related dates quickly,” Middleton says. “Cars, computers, microchips—if I were to draw an Amiga computer from 10 years ago, it would look pretty bad right now. People would giggle and point.”

Through the decades, grand touring car and wrestling’s hammerlock have been deleted for this reason. Not that datedness is the only reason for removing old illustrations. Middleton took muzzle out of the unabridged third because, he said: "I couldn’t take it. The dog was such a sad individual." And piñata didn’t make it into the 11th because of "the violence of it all. Many people liked that picture, but it’s a collegiate dictionary, and the piñata seemed incongruous."