July 23, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

The dictionary war just went noo’ kle-er. Or, you might say, ‘nyü-kye-ler — if your lexicon of choice is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. And you thought lexicography was for pointy-heads (n: intellectual — usu. used disparagingly). Houghton Mifflin’s launch this month of The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition ($21.95) is turning into a defining battle for the lucrative dictionary market. The company is taking aim at Merriam-Webster, the reference publishing powerhouse, for accepting ain’t and that controversial pronunciation of nuclear in its new Collegiate Dictionary ($21.95).

Merriam-Webster says it ain’t so. ”First and foremost, we try to tell the truth about words,” says editor in chief Frederick Mish. He points out that dictionary wars date back to Noah Webster’s era and insists that his firm is staying above the fray. But it isn’t above a few fighting words. President Joseph J. Esposito cautions against dictionaries including such ”faddish” terms as, say, cyberpunk. Cy·ber·punk is (surprise!) a new American Heritage entry.

Another new American Heritage entry: media event. Both publishers know what that means. American Heritage will make its film debut in Columbia Pictures’ Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson; it will also be featured in an ad on the Fenway scoreboard at a Red Sox game. In May Merriam-Webster kicked off a $2.5 million promotional blitz and has offered its book as a prize on Jeopardy! and The Price Is Right. ”The real competition is for a piece of the public’s mind,” says Esposito. And other dictionary publishers aren’t the only rivals. Esposito was recently bumped off the Today show ”because Bryant was covering a live execution” — an oxymoron a wordsmith could definitely appreciate.

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