Saturday, October 06, 2007
The American Heritage Dictionary
Our book today is the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, and lest any of you protest that a mere reference work cannot take its place alongside the high (and low) works of literature with which we routinely deal here at Stevereads, pray think again. Think not only of the awful penalties for second-guessing our wisdom, but of your own famously narrow, parochial reading strictures. Why, you’d read the same Tom Clancy potboiler over and over again, if it weren’t for the guidance you receive here at Stevereads.
And today we’re guiding you toward the latest hardcover American Heritage dictionary, the only example of its kind since Doctor Johnson’s that could be read for pleasure.
What a treasure-trove this book is! And yet, what will strike any potential reader first is its sheer physical beauty, a big, heavy volume of impeccable solidity, fit to be chained to a medieval lectern, or to sit much-consulted on a swivel-shelf in some well-paneled study (we here at Stevereads have a volume always at the open in our palatial office to rebuke the vainglory of our grasping interns, but we also have one open in the oak-finished study of our retreat at Montauk, so that in idle moments late of evenings, with the fire crackling and our gigantic dogs Leni and Blondi gazing adoringly upon us, we may flip to a pertinent definition and sigh, ‘yes, we were, after all, entirely correct’). In an age of increasing digitalization (and hence, increasing marginalization), it’s hard not to view this fourth edition as a flag planted at the valiant edge of old technology. Here, this big book seems to say, here is what old-fashioned print-technology can do – a carefully-chosen panel of experts in their chose fields, assembled under the aegis of this great scholarly endeavor. In this age of Wikipedia, in the era of the cult of the amateur, can the doomed valiance such a proclamation be doubted?
Make no mistake: this enormous book is a vast and valorous challenge to that inevitable future. Its panel of experts, its manifold technical expertise, and most of all its restrained aura of intellectual understatement. All but the very bravest of Internet cooperatives wilt before it, as they should. Dictionaries, true dictionaries, are meant to be consulted physically, not browsed electronically.
And the greatest of these is surely our present work, the greatest American dictionary ever compiled (with all due respect to Mr. Webster). The three previous editions were all sterling works of utility; with the fourth, the whole enterprise is elevated to the level of art, from the stylish minimalism of the dust jacket design to the thoroughly reworked interior visuals.
Most big hardcover dictionaries are full of features their purchasers (usually proud parents of off-going college freshmen, who’d much, much rather have the money involved, so they could at least temporarily feed their colossal, near-overwhelming tobacco addictions) that go overlooked by their word-inquiring possessors, and the fourth edition of the American Heritage is no different in kind, merely in the vast wealth of what’s being ignored.
This edition has all the usual ignored frills – the lovingly formatted and explained history of the various strands that have gone into weaving the English language, the various tables of conversion and measurement, etc. But it has added features all its own, and they are remarkable, cropping up on virtually every page of the book in set-aside boxes. There are discursions on grammar, elucidations on syntax, and one of the most fascinating recurring feature is something called ‘Our Living Language,’ which tracks the shifting vagaries of the way people talk, often making telling points along the way:
“Ax, a common nonstandard variant of ask, is often identified as an especially salient feature of African American Vernacular English. While it is true that the form is frequent in the speech of African Americans, it used to be common in the speech of white Americans as well, especially in New England. This should not be surprising since ax is a very old word in English, having been used in England for over 1,000 years … the forms in x arose from the forms in sk by a linguistic process called metathesis, in which two sounds are reversed. The x thus represents (ks), the flipped version of (sk). Metathesis is a common linguistic process around the world and does not arise from a defect in speaking. Nevertheless, ax has become stigmatized as substandard, a fate that has befallen other words, like ain’t, that were once perfectly acceptable in literate circles.”
But the most fascinating feature of the American Heritage is the recurring Usage Note. These Notes crop up on almost every page, and they aren’t tied to wherever in the alphabet we happen to be – they range at random and so, they consistently surprise and delight:
“Strictly speaking, an epithet need not be derogatory, but the term is commonly used as a simple synonym for term of abuse or sur, as in There is no place for racial epithets in a police officer’s vocabulary. This usage is accepted by 80 percent of the Usage Panel.”
And then there’s this:
“Momentarily is widely used in speech to mean ‘in a moment,’ as in The manager is on another line, but she’ll be with you momentarily. This usage rarely leads to ambiguity since the intended sense can usually be determined on the basis of the tense of the verb and the context. Nonetheless, many critics hold that the adverb should be reserved for the senses [sic] ‘for a moment’ and the extended usage is unacceptable to 59 percent of the Usage Panel.”
Even those two examples will have clued you in to the real drama unfolding in the least likely of places, the latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. Yes, in an age where 99 percent of all Western people consult the Internet for 100 percent of their informational needs (and fewer than 10 percent, in consequence, even own a print-and-paper dictionary, much less a big, elaborate volume like this one, striving to be timeless), it turns out the battle for the very soul of our linguistic integrity is being waged in the narrow, hithertofore unknown confines of the American Heritage’s Usage Panel. We’re told that the Usage Panel constitutes ‘200 distinguished writers, scholars, scientists, and other respected users and students of the English language.’ And we can see by any random sampling of Usage Notes that these users and students are not only in serial disagreement but are, in fact, writhing in turmoil.
And a glance at the membership of the Usage Panel (of course, being devoted to helpfulness, the American Heritage lists their names) gives us a glimpse into this epic Manichean war being waged on our behalf, on behalf of the sanctity of the written word, which comprises so much of who we’ve come to be.
Like we said, they post the membership. And the ledger is an ominous thing, not least because so many past members have died and had their definitions rendered obsolete. No, the real reason for the element of quease involved is obvious from the composition of this Usage Panel, past and present. There are angels and demons in the ranks, my dears, and they are fighting over the very essentials of who we say we are.
We won’t name names here at Stevereads; far be it for us to subscribe monickers to the Band of Angels or the Legion of the Damned. We merely lay their names before you – we trust you’ll readily see which side is which:
On the one hand, we have Roy Blount, Letitia Baldridge, Jacques Barzun, Annie Dillard, Howard Fast, John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Hass, Sue Hubbell, Molly Ivins, Alfred Kahn, Justin Kaplan, Garrison Keillor, Jean Kirkpatrick, William Least-Heat Moon, David Leavitt, Lois Lowry, William Manchester, Richard Rhodes, Frank Rich, Arthur Schlesinger, Elaine Showalter, Ted Sorensen, Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Randall, Eudora Welty, A. Bart Giamatti, Alfred Kazin, Walter Kerr, J. Anthony Lukas, Wallace Stegner, and the mighty Helen Vendler.
And on the other: Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Mark Doty, Robin Cook, Pat Conroy, Louise Erdrich, Henry Louis Gates Jr, James Gleick, Stephen Greenblatt, Mark Helprin, Oscar Hijuelos, Douglas Hofstadter, Erica Jong, Tracy Kidder, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Maxine Kumin, Armistead Maupin, Alice Munro, Mary Oliver, Steven Pinker, Robert Pinsky, E. Annie Proulx, Judith Rossner, Antonin Scalia, Mona Simpson, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Anne Tyler, Fay Weldon, and David Foster Wallace.
Underneath the erudition and the pages so bright they seem illuminated, this epic battle is the real draw in the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. Who knew such important drama lay behind the staid façade of a full-dress dictionary?
Your soul is being fought over, just as your grandmothers averred. So go to your local library and alot an hour or two to crawl over it with the attention it deserves. And for the rest of you? Go to your local Barnes & Noble and plunk for the measly $50 for the full-dress hardcover. It’s an essential addition to your personal library.