The whale fail

mwdeu2Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is a great book. It’s a hefty, well-researched, non-dogmatic guide to usage debates past and present, and I rely on it a lot.

But there’s a typo on the front cover.

A bit embarrassing to get the name of the book (and the publisher) wrong, so prominently. And it is wrong: on the dust jacket and the inside pages, the hyphen is there.

This reminds me of another book with a hyphen problem: Moby-Dick.

Yes, Herman Melville’s book is called Moby-Dick, with a hyphen. But the whale in the book is called Moby Dick, without one.

Moby-DickNo one knows exactly why this happened. Melville changed the title (from The Whale) at a late stage in production, and perhaps a message got garbled or someone at the publisher’s put a typo on the title page of the first edition. Whatever the cause, the hyphen stuck.

My own theory is that the hyphen that should be on the cover of MWDEU fell through a freak wormhole in the fabric of spacetime and landed on the front of Moby-Dick.

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  • Rebecca  On December 19, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    That missing Merriam-Webster hyphen leads to a charming mistake by the main character of Rita Williams’ Garcia’s “One Crazy Summer,” who believes Merriam Webster is a wonderful woman who knows all about words. It is a sad moment when she finds out the truth.

  • Barrie  On December 19, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    My MWDEU (1994) has the hyphen.

  • Warsaw Will  On December 21, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    Mine does on the dust jacket and the frontispiece, but not on the main cover, just like Tom’s.

  • Steven Elgart  On December 21, 2014 at 11:47 pm

    Regarding Melville, this appeared on Cyrus Patell’s website but doesn’t help with Merriam-Webster

    “G. Thomas Tanselle, who edited the Library of America volume that includes the novel, included this note about the title:

    The title of the English edition, The Whale, was Mel­ville’s earlier title for the book. In an undated letter to Bentley, Allan Melville wrote, “Since sending proofs of my brothers new work . . . he has deter­ mined upon a new title & dedication — Enclosed you have proof of both­ — It is thought here that the new title will be a better selling title –“. Allan’s letter arrived in time for Bentley to include the dedication to Hawthorne; but presumably it was already too late to change the tide, which appears twice in each of the three volumes and had been used in advertising. In his letter Allan spells “Moby-Dick” with the hyphen, as it also appears on the title page and divisional title page of the American edition; but only one of the many occurrences of the name in the text includes the hyphen. The Northwestern-Newberry editors retain the hyphen in the tide, arguing that hyphenated titles were conventional in mid-nineteenth-century America. As a result, the hyphenated form refers to the book, the unhyphenated to the whale.

    I believe the one occurrence that uses the hyphen when referring to the whale in the text is in Chapter 133, “The Chase — First Day,” page 609 in the first edition:”


  • Barrie  On December 22, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Quite right, Will. I’ve just looked under the dust jacket of mine, and it’s the same.

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