language corner

Taking the Fifth

A dictionary, updated, adds and subtracts
November 14, 2011

The Fifth Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is out, cause for celebration for some and anguish for others.

As Ben Zimmer wrote in the Boston Globe, the dictionary had its genesis in the outcry over the publication of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, in 1961. When that dictionary came out, CJR said in 1962, “it had fewer warning signs that sorted words into such disapproved classifications as ‘slang’ and ‘dialectical.’” Webster’s “seemed to say,” CJR said, “‘Do what you damn please, I couldn’t care less.’” A New York Times editorial said that such permissiveness was “disastrous, because, intentionally or unintentionally, it serves to reinforce the notion that good English is whatever is popular.”

Into that controversy stepped James Parton, editor of American Heritage magazine. Outraged over a dictionary that included so much slang and sanctioned loose usage, including “yakking” and “finalize,” Parton led the effort to create a new dictionary.

That first American Heritage Dictionary, published in 1969, became a best seller, mainly because it gave not just understandable definitions and was illustrated, but also because it had a “Usage Panel” of experts who discussed whether, for example, “hopefully” could mean “it is hoped,” the way many people used it. Fifty-six percent of the first Usage Panel nixed that usage; in the Fifth Edition, the Usage Note says that “its widespread use reflects popular recognition of its usefulness,” though, for its Usage Panel, “Opposition continues to run high or even higher to this usage than it did in the 1960s.”

(You can use the dictionary online for free, but you need the book or the app to see the Usage Notes.)

“10,000 new words and senses,” brags the spadia around the print edition. (A “spadia,” whose definition you won’t find in AHD5, is a partial page wrapped around the spine of a book, newspaper, or magazine.)

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Among those “new” words is “Bragg grating,” added to “Bragg angle” and “Bragg’s law,” all traceable to William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg, who shared a physics Nobel in 1915 for using X-rays to analyze crystal structures. You don’t need to know what a “Bragg grating” is; suffice it to say that the definition begins “A diffraction grating created within the structure of a substance …”

Other “new” words are more useful, such as half a column of “web” words, including “webinar” and “webmistress.”

Those “10,000 new words and senses” make the Fifth Edition’s definition pages just sixteen pages longer than the Fourth’s; obviously, some words dropped out as well. So, in came “hardass” and out went “Hardecanute,” a king of England and Denmark in the eleventh century. “Plow,” another name for the Big Dipper, yielded so that words such as “plumed” and “plumeria” could be sanctified.

There is some irony that the AHD, created to preserve “proper” English, was the first consumer dictionary to include the words that George Carlin could never say on TV, since those words are certainly slang and quite possibly contribute to what Parton and his cohort would consider to be the continued death spiral of English.

And for people looking for another enemy of the right, AHD5 could a target. The definitions of “widow,” and “widower” have been revised to say “A woman [or man] whose spouse has died and who has not remarried.” (Emphasis added.) Gone are mentions of “husband” or “wife.” And the first definition of “marriage”? It used to be “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife.” Appended to that now is “… and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other.”

What would Parton say?

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.