The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition

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Biography: The Incredible Expanding Form

A biography, according to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is “an account of a person’s life written, composed, or produced by another.” Yet, in recent years, a number of writers have been stretching this definition. Nowadays, human beings are no longer the sole suitable subjects for a biography, which is coming to mean an account of just about anything’s life, or history, or essence. These things include cities, literary forms, integers, currency, animals, and automobiles, to name a few.

Why are people writing biographies of such things now? Is it because contemporary writers are more imaginative and open-minded than their predecessors? Or are they simply more desperate for subject matter that hasn’t already been chewed to death? Or could it be some combination of the two?

While I don’t claim to know the answer, I do have a theory that the expanding field of worthy subjects for biographies is related to the expanding field of worthy subjects for serious academic and historical inquiry. The latest example of this high-low trend is Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s current bestseller, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. It joins a growing shelf of serious books about such everyday objects as salt, cod, pop songs, and the pencil (and, yes, how to sharpen a pencil).

Here is a sampling of a half dozen things that have become the subject of biographies by writers who have stretched the conventional definition of the form, to sometimes stunning effect.

A City
Scott Martelle, a former reporter for The Detroit News, like so many people who grew up in Detroit or spent a sizeable chunk of time there, became fascinated by the place. The result is Detroit: A Biography, a book that makes no pretense of being an exhaustive history, but is, rather, “a book about life, and human nature, and about a city as a living and breathing thing.”

And it succeeds at telling the remarkable story of this city’s life, beginning with its “difficult childhood” as a French trading outpost in the early 18th century, its adolescence as a manufacturer of stoves, carriages and rail cars, its brawny adulthood as the center of the world’s automobile industry, and its surprisingly swift decline into decrepit old age. But Martelle, like many smart observers in recent years, does not write Detroit off, nor does he buy into the hackneyed theories about what caused the city to fall so far, so fast — such tidy scapegoats as the bloody 1967 riot, or the troubled 20-year reign of Mayor Coleman Young. The city’s population peaked in 1950, Martelle notes, the point at which government policies, corporate business practices, and century-old racial animosities began to drain the city of jobs and population.

“White flight wasn’t the only force emptying Detroit,” Martelle writes. “During the 1950s the Big Three automakers and other leading industrial concerns embarked on massive decentralization plans to build factories closer to regional customer bases around the country, but also to try to reduce one of the main pressure on profit margins: the cost of labor.” White flight was also greased by aggressive highway building and entrenched (and racist) real-estate policies that benefited the suburbs at the expense of the inner city. In hindsight, there was almost no way for Detroit to fail to fail.

This biography ends on a cautiously hopeful note. The Motor City may be gone forever — “Large-scale industry will not lead whatever comeback might be possible,” Martelle correctly writes — but he sees signs of hope, including a newly vibrant downtown, many solid neighborhoods, an influx of entrepreneurs, urban farmers, and creative people, a growing sense that Detroit still matters and that it still has a chance.

Recent developments indicate Martelle’s optimism might not be misplaced. His book was published in 2011, two years before Detroit became the largest city to declare bankruptcy in American history. The city has just emerged from bankruptcy, far more quickly than expected, and with many valuable assets, including its coveted Institute of Arts, intact. Maybe a new chapter is opening in the life story of this impossibly tortured, impossibly resilient city.

A Literary Form
In setting out to write the life story of our age’s dominant literary form, Michael Schmidt decided to bypass critics, historians, and, yes, biographers. Instead, The Novel: A Biography is “mainly told by novelists and through novels,” or what Schmidt, echoing Ford Madox Ford, calls “artist practitioners.” The book is staggering — it covers more than 700 years and runs to more than 1,000 pages. Jonathan Russell Clark tried to grasp the scope of Schmidt’s achievement in an essay here at The Millions, noting that a key to its success is the author’s avoidance of literary theory in favor of a dissection of literary influences. It proves to be a wise choice. And Schmidt, for all his erudition, isn’t shy about injecting his personal opinions, which contribute to this biography’s rumbustious vitality. He prefers David Foster Wallace’s essays to his novels; he disses Samuel Richardson and Michael Crichton; he’s very fond of Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, and Martin Amis; he adores Miguel de Cervantes; and he sticks up for Stephen King. In a nice bit of symmetry, he concludes that the novel is every bit as elastic as the elastic notion of biography that inspired him to write this book. The novel’s great strength, in Schmidt’s view, is its slipperiness, its ability to change shapes, its capacity to absorb material from endless sources, including music, art, history, life, and, of course, other novels. In a final twist, Clark argues in his essay that this biography isn’t a biography after all: “The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure ––the ultimate unreliable narrator — that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him.”

An Integer
In his anecdotal, entertaining book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, the mathematician Charles Seife describes his subject as “infinity’s twin,” adding that “zero is different from the other numbers. It provides a glimpse of the ineffable and the infinite. This is why it has been feared and hated — and outlawed.”

Ranging over 30,000 years, from the carvings of prehistoric man to the musings of today’s astrophysicists, Seife’s biography notes that Babylonians were using zero 300 years B.C., and Alexander the Great carried zero to India. But the resistance to zero in the West was not overcome until the Renaissance, with the advent of the vanishing point in art, an innovation that could accommodate the twinned concepts of zero and infinity. Since then it has proven useful to everyone from accountants to people trying to envision black holes as stars packed into “zero space.”

Seife concludes, “All that scientists know is that the cosmos was spawned from nothing, and will return to the nothing from whence it came. The universe begins and ends with zero.” A worthy subject for a biography, indeed.

A Currency
Pity the poor almighty dollar. There are 760 billion of them circulating in the world, but two-thirds of them live far from home, in chilly places like the central bank vault in Seoul, South Korea. The dominant global currency since the end of the Second World War, the dollar has recently come under attack, most directly by the European Union’s solid euro and China’s newly muscular yuan, but also by shortsighted policies of the U.S. government. Things have gotten so dire that in his near-future satire, Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart has Americans spending nearly worthless “yuan-pegged dollars.” The funny thing about the joke is that it isn’t all that far-fetched.

In Biography of the Dollar, his story of the rise and suddenly precarious position of this once-almighty currency, Wall Street Journal reporter Craig Karmin lays out an astonishing fact. Since the United States went off the gold standard in 1971, the dollar’s value has been built on the thinnest of tissues: faith in the idea of America. And we all know how flimsy that is.

Karmin notes that the dollar’s historical solidity has done much to lift many global economies. But there is a downside: “Enduring demand for the dollar has also encouraged the United States to run up enormous — some would say unsustainable — foreign debts and record deficits.” The U.S., he adds, pays $1 million each day for every man, woman, and child living in the country — just to service its debt. Which leads Karmin to a scary conclusion: “Too many dollars may be circulating the planet and could be setting the greenback up for a big fall.” Which explains his subtitle: How the Mighty Buck Conquered the World and Why It’s Under Siege.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. And you might want to consider buying gold — or euros or yuan — while you’re at it.

An Animal
Writing biographies about non-human subjects, it turns out, is not an invention of our times. Back in the late 19th century, a prolific author, wildlife artist, and environmentalist named Ernest Thompson Seton wrote a delightfully weird novel that purported to reveal the inner life of a grizzly bear. The Biography of a Grizzly tells the story of Wahb, a grizzly cub in western Canada who watches as his mother and three siblings are gunned down by a bad bag of applesauce named Old Colonel Pickett, the cattle king. The orphaned Wahb nurses his own wound and lives a long, lonely, bitter life, so traumatized by the killing of his family that he never takes a mate. Wahb is a sensitive giant, besieged by enemies on every side, as when a beaver trap snaps shut on his paw: “He did not know what it was, but his little green-brown eyes glared with a mixture of pain, fright and fury as he tried to understand his new enemy.”

The book was preceded by Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, which portrayed wolves and other animals as compassionate individualistic beings. It became one of the bestselling books of its day, part of a wave of books advocating animal rights by featuring anthropomorphic wild animals that had emotions and were capable of learning, teaching, and reasoning. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Jack London’s White Fang were part of the wave, which eventually inspired a backlash by critics who derided such books as “yellow journalism of the woods.” President Theodore Roosevelt, whose love for the outdoors was surpassed only by his love for slaughtering wild animals, weighed in with a magazine article in 2007, dismissing Seton and company as “nature fakers.” Teddy had nerve.

A Car
Earl Swift published a book this year called Auto Biography, which is, quite literally, the story of the life of a single car — a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon. Swift, a pit-bull of a reporter, tracked down the man who bought the shiny new car in Norfolk, Va., in 1957, and every one of the dozen people who have owned it since, right up to a bruiser named Tommy Arney who rescued the car from the scrap heap and lovingly restored it to its original glory. The car’s owners, Swift writes, represent “a cross section of America in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, all of them players in a single narrative for having sat behind the wheel of this Chevy.”

Swift’s ingenious narrative strategy reminds me of Marguerite Yourcenar’s in her novel A Coin In Nine Hands, which follows the journey of a 10-lira coin as it passes through the hands of nine very different people on a single day in Rome in 1933. These nine people, like the dozen owners of the ’57 Chevy, are linked in ways they cannot explain or understand. But in the hands of a gifted writer, just about anything — a car, a coin, a ring, a book, a smell, a memory — can be an opening into the mysteries of human connectivity.

In closing — and in the interest of full disclosure — I should tell you that my interest in the elastic nature of biography dates back more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, I was driving a luscious lipstick-red and black 1954 Buick Special, a car that became my Muse and a central character in my first novel, which told the story of a fictional publicity campaign built around the sale of the 500,000th Buick in 1954, when Buick and rival Plymouth were locked in an actual sales war for the number three slot behind Chevy and Ford. Since the novel’s arc followed that particular Buick from conception to birth to infancy — from the drawing board to the assembly line to the showroom to the first buyer’s driveway and finally onto a magazine cover — I came to think of the novel as the life story of the car. And so my working title was Biography of a Buick.

As publication neared, my editor contacted Buick’s PR people in Detroit, hoping they might somehow help us promote the book. Instead they bristled, threatening legal action if a General Motors brand name appeared in the title. My editor had no desire to go up against GM’s legal department, and so he persuaded me, kicking and screaming, to change the title to Motor City.

With time I’ve grown to like the title, maybe because I ended up getting a consolation prize. The novel also sold in Great Britain and Germany, and my publishers there, unfazed by the huffing of GM’s legal department, stuck with my original title. So the book came out in England as Biography of a Buick and in Germany as Biographie eines Buick. I got to have it both ways, and the life story of my car was destined to have a life of its own.

A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

The big literary event for me this year was a dictionary upgrade — from a 1974 first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language to the new, improved fifth edition. The book itself is a thing of beauty: 2,084 colorfully illustrated pages between sturdy cream-colored covers. Among its many delights are the 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.

I should also mention a wonderful discovery, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, a new non-fiction book by fellow Detroit-native Mark Binelli. It’s an overdue and hugely welcome corrective to the narrative of doom and decay that has been pouring out of Detroit, like toxic sludge, for the past 40 years. Binelli, a dogged reporter and deft writer, moved back home for two years to do research, and he came away believing that “Detroit’s luck, despite such unimaginable obstacles, might still turn.” It’s a brave, smart, and important book.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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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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