The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

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Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: The Fifth Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary

1.
My dictionary lives on the floor beside my desk — out of the way yet easy to reach when I need to consult it, which is something I do upwards of a dozen times a day. It’s the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a Christmas present from my father way back in 1974. After nearly four decades of service, the old warhorse is literally coming apart, its spine broken, its red cover crumbling, its pages yellowing at the edges and breaking free.

Why such loyalty to a book? Part of the answer is that, like most writers, I’m a creature of iron habit. Familiarity and routine tend to breed contentment rather than contempt. But mere familiarity would not be enough to make a writer stick with a tool as crucial as a dictionary. Much more important are what I consider the American Heritage’s three timeless virtues: its illustrations, its etymologies and, above all, its Usage Panel.

The illustrations in the first edition are black-and-white drawings, photographs, charts and maps, beautifully arrayed in the wide margins, a radical innovation in its day. The etymologies are concise, never fussy, frequently fascinating. (People who continue to consult unwieldy print dictionaries in our digital age, for instance, are distant descendants of Ned Lud(d), a late 18th-century English worker who destroyed textile machinery out of fear that this new technology would displace him and his fellow workmen.)

But the Usage Panel is what makes the American Heritage Dictionary unique and, for me, indispensable. For the first edition, the panel consisted of about 100 people, mostly professional writers and editors, mostly white, mostly male, with an average age of 68. They included Isaac Asimov, William F. Buckley Jr., John Ciardi, Malcolm Cowley, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Stegner; the women, outnumbered but not outgunned, included Pauline Kael, Margaret Mead, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, and Gloria Steinem.

Their task, in a nod to the fact that language is a fluid and slippery substance, was to vote on the proper and improper usages of given words. The editors then tallied the ballots and used them as the basis for recommendations contained in several hundred Usage Notes. The notes make for enriching reading. Here, for instance, is the Usage Note on disinterested:
Disinterested differs from uninterested to the degree that lack of self-iinterest differs from lack of any interest. Disinterested is synonymous with impartial, unbiased.  Uninterested has the sense of indifferent, not interested. According to 93 percent of the Usage Panel, disinterested is not acceptable in the sense of uninterested, though it is often thus employed.
The last sentence is telling: the Usage Panel was almost unanimous in its verdict, even though many people use the word incorrectly. In other words, as the makers of The American Heritage Dictionary see it, popular usage does not determine correctness; the consensus of knowledgeable people determines correctness.

The editor of the first edition, William Morris (no kin to me), made it clear in his introduction that the democratic methods of the Usage Panel should not be equated with a disdain for rules or an unwillingness to make value judgments. Unanimity of opinion was not the goal, and it was achieved just once — when 100 percent of the panel rejected simultaneous as an adverb. The dictionary debuted in 1969 and was a direct rebuke to the far more freewheeling Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which had appeared in 1961. In a sense, the AHD was a line in the sand between prescriptivists like Morris, who insist that one of a dictionary’s primary functions is to make informed distinctions between correct and incorrect uses of words, and descriptivists like Webster III’s makers, who contend that a dictionary’s function is merely to chronicle current practices. Here is Morris’s description of the prescriptivist goal for The American Heritage Dictionary: “It would faithfully record our language, the duty of any lexicographer, but would not, like so many others in these permissive times, rest there. On the contrary, it would add the essential dimension of guidance, that sensible guidance toward grace and precision, which intelligent people seek in a dictionary.” A good dictionary, he added, ought to be “a treasury of information about every aspect of words” and “an agreeable companion.”

After nearly four decades of poring over my first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary — it’s a book that invites you to read it rather than just refer to it — I can report that it has been a most agreeable companion.

2.
Maybe the reason that old dictionary and I got along so well for so long was because the man who gave it to me was a Usage Panel in his own right. My father was a newspaper reporter at The Washington Post when I was born, a gifted rewrite man who got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize along with Al Lewis, the cop reporter who would break the story of the Watergate break-in some 20 years later. In addition to being punctilious about grammar, usage, spelling, and style, my father was a lightning-fast typist. Ben Bradlee, a fellow Post reporter who went on to fame as the paper’s editor, wrote in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, that “Dick Morris was the fastest typist in the newsroom.” To which my father, a proud man, sniffed, “I like to think I was the fastest writer in the newsroom.”

He had every right to be miffed. He was a fine writer and a fine editor, owner of a vast and ever-expanding vocabulary. Not once in his 86 years did I see him stumped when asked to define or spell a word. He was a big fan of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and he shared their belief that a person’s style of speaking and writing is an accurate barometer of that person’s intelligence and worth. As E.B. White put it, “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition. This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what a man is, rather than what he knows, will at last determine his style.”

My father shared Flaubert’s belief that there is a right word for every situation, there are a great many wrong ones, and sometimes there is one perfect word. I can still remember the night in high school when I finished typing up a 17-page paper on my latest passion, Albert Camus. It was due the next morning, and I took it downstairs to present it to my father, terribly proud of myself. He read the opening sentence and immediately reached for the Cross pen in his shirt pocket. I looked on, aghast, as he circled a word in ink. He read the sentence aloud: “Before his premature death in a car crash in 1960 at the age of 46, Albert Camus had cemented his reputation as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.”  Then my father said, “The word premature usually refers to a birth that takes place before the baby is ready. Untimely is the word you want if you’re referring to a man’s death at a relatively early age. Or possibly inopportune.” He continued to carve up my paper with ink marks, then sent me back upstairs to rework it. I spent most of the night editing and retyping the mess. Of course I got an A+ for the paper. Far more important, I’ve never forgotten the difference between premature and untimely.

My father’s insistence on precision and Strunk and White’s emphasis on the importance of style are not the same as advocating slavish adherence to rules. Quite the opposite. While The Elements of Style contains many rules, in the end the thing that matters most to its authors is a writer’s “ear,” the ability to distinguish writing that sounds right from writing that sounds wrong. For this reason, many writers (the great Elmore Leonard among them) always read their stuff out loud to find out how it sounds. If it sounds awkward or clunky, it gets rewritten because good writing is music made of ink. To this end, the wise writer knows that rules are there for bending, or ignoring. Splitting infinitives, using the passive voice, stringing together adjectives, pairing none with a plural verb, starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition — those things are all against the rules, yet they’re in every good writer’s tool kit. The issue is knowing when and how to use them to make the writing sound right. The issue, in a word, is style.

3.
YOU ARE YOUR WORDS.

Those words, which my father and Strunk and White would have endorsed, appear on a refrigerator magnet that came with my copy of the new fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary. There is also an app (a $24.99 value) that allows one free download of the entire dictionary onto an iPad, iPhone, iPod, or Android. Alas, this Luddite doesn’t own any of these devices, but it was reassuring to know that the makers of my new dictionary are prescriptivists, not technophobes.

The book itself is a thing of beauty: 2,084 pages between sturdy cream-colored covers, weighing nearly eight pounds (up from a little over five pounds for the first edition). The illustrations in the fifth edition are in color, and the word entries are in blue ink, which was jarring at first but quickly became pleasing to the eye. The new edition, like the first, contains an extensive appendix of Indo-European Roots, a sort of pre-history of English words. The Usage Notes have been expanded, and they’re augmented by lists of Synonyms, notes on Our Living Language, and Word Histories, which are breezy, informative essays about how select words evolved. Here’s a sample Word History:
The word outlaw brings to mind the cattle rustlers and gunslingers of the Wild West, but it comes from a much earlier time, when guns were not yet invented but cattle stealing was. Outlaw can be traced back to the old Norse word utlagr, “outlawed, banished,” made up of ut, “out,” and log, “law.” An utlagi (derived from utlagr) was someone outside the protection of the law. The Scandinavians, who invaded and settled in England during the 8th through 11th century, gave us the Old English word utlaga, which designated someone who because of criminal acts had to give up his property to the crown and could be killed without recrimination. The legal status of the outlaw became less severe over the course of the Middle Ages. However, the looser use of the word to designate criminals in general, which arose in Middle English, lives on in tales of the Wild West.
And here’s a note on Our Living Language:
Gung ho is one of many words that entered the English language as a result of World War II. It comes from Mandarin Chinese gonghe, the slogan of the gongye hezuoshe, the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society. (The gong in gonghe means “work,” while he means “combine, join.”) Marine Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson (1896-1947) heard the expression and thought it was well-suited to the spirit he was trying to foster among his Marines, the famous “Carlson’s Raiders.” Carlson began to use it as a moniker for meetings in which problems were discussed and worked out, and his Marines began calling themselves the “Gung Ho Battalion.” Gung ho soon began to be used to describe any person who shows eagerness, as it still is today. Other words and expressions that entered the English language during World War II include flak, gizmo, task force, black market and hit the sack.
For the fifth edition, the Usage Panel was doubled in size and made more inclusive in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and specialty. In addition to writers and editors, the panel included scientists, scholars, linguists, translators, cartoonists, film directors, even a former U.S. senator and a Supreme Court justice. My guess is that the average age of the panelists is now closer to 48 than 68. The writers included Margaret Atwood, Harold Bloom, Roy Blount Jr., Junot Diaz, Joan Didion, Rita Dove, Frances FitzGerald, Jonathan Franzen, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Oscar Hijuelos, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Patchett, John Sayles, David Sedaris, William T. Vollmann, and John Edgar Wideman. Among the panelists who died during the decade the dictionary was being put together were Molly Ivins, Leonard Michaels, and David Foster Wallace.

The fifth edition contains 10,000 new words that were not in the fourth (published in 2000), which contained 10,000 new words that were not in the third (published in 1992). Among the new entries are asshat (vulgar slang for a contemptible or detestable person), filk (a genre of music popular among devotees of science fiction and fantasy literature), and ollie (a skateboard maneuver). I knew what an ollie was, but I was delighted to learn its etymology: it’s the nickname of Alan Gelfand (born 1963), the American skateboarder who developed the trick.

For all its many virtues, the fifth edition is not perfect. Its one glaring flaw is an introductory essay written by the chairman of the Usage Panel, Steven Pinker, a Harvard University linguist and cognitive scientist who is also an avowed descriptivist. In “Usage in The American Heritage Dictionary,” Pinker writes, “(W)hen many speakers misuse a word on many occasions in the same way — like credible for credulous, enervate for excite, or protagonist for proponent — who’s to say they’re wrong? When enough people misuse a word, it becomes perverse to insist that they’re misusing it at all.”

What’s that whirring noise I hear? Is it William Morris, who died in 1994, spinning in his grave? Pinker’s argument is the very sort of “permissive” thinking Morris so vigorously decried in his introduction to the first edition. It’s also the reason we get presidents like George W. Bush, who uttered gobbledygook like misunderestimate and said vulcanize when he meant Balkanize.

After his descriptivist, usage-determines-correctness salvo, Pinker goes on to disparage something he calls “the paradox of false consensus.” (For some reason he calls this paradox bubba meises, which is Yiddish for “grandmother’s tales,” when the English expression “old wives’ tales” would have done the job.) The most notorious bubbe meise, Pinker claims, is the prohibition against split infinitives, which, as we have seen, is an old rule that skilled writers feel free to flout whenever it suits their needs. But Pinker sees something nefarious, even dangerous, in such rules. He writes:
How do ludicrous fetishes like the prohibition of split verbs become entrenched? For a false consensus to take root against people’s better judgment it needs the additional push of enforcement. People not only avow a dubious belief that they think everyone else avows, but they punish those who fail to avow it, largely out of the belief — also false — that everyone else wants it enforced. False conformity and false enforcement can magnify each other, creating a vicious circle that entraps a community into a practice that few of its members would accept on their own…The same cycle of false enforcement could entrench a linguistic bubba meise as a bogus rule of usage. It begins when a self-anointed expert elevates one of his peeves or cockamamie theories into an authoritative pronouncement that some usage is incorrect, or better still, ignorant, barbaric, and vulgar.

Insecure writers are intimidated into avoiding the usage. They add momentum to the false consensus by derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.
I’m still having trouble believing that such lame logic and tawdry sensationalism — beware the witch hunt! watch out for Red-baiters! — were allowed between the covers of this otherwise wonderful book. I can only guess that the editors were hoping that by including Pinker’s gibberish they would defuse charges of elitism. If so, they’ve shown poor judgment and a surprising lack of respect for this dictionary’s rich history, high standards and unapologetically prescriptivist leanings.

So go ahead and call me Cotton Mather or Joe McCarthy or, worse, an elitist. But I’m going to keep following the guidance of Ann Patchett, Cynthia Ozick, David Foster Wallace and their hundreds of elite colleagues who contributed to this new incarnation of The American Heritage Dictionary. It’s one of the most agreeable companions any lover of the English language could hope to have.

Images courtesy of the author.

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