Dictionaries, Change, and “Real” Words: Welcome AHD5 (but my heart belongs to the OED)

Happy Birthday, AHD!

The scheduled post today was supposed to about semicolons. But with the much-publicized release of the 5th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) last week, how could I resist the opportunity?

I love dictionaries. Not in the deeply passionate way you might love a spouse; not in the warm, unflinchingly committed way you might love a child or sibling; not even in the irrational, fanatical way you might support your favorite sports franchise.

No, I love dictionaries in the way that you might love a good book or a movie or a favorite TV show. They bring you occasional (if transient) joy, sometimes pleasant surprises, and sometimes you’ll even learn something from them. And, like a favorite book or film, they’re reliable. You can come back to them over and over again, and each time have a different experience.

Do we need dictionaries? Of course we do. The language would be incredibly difficult to navigate without them. But as with most language-related ideas, there’s always the danger of misuse, or at least misinterpretation.

“Misuse” of a dictionary? Don’t scoff. As with so many issues that have been (or will be) covered on this blog, it comes down to whether a person has descriptivist or prescriptivist tendencies: do you simply observe how the language is used and then document it, or do you make up rules and insist that others follow them? No one is ever completely descriptivist or prescriptivist: we fall along a spectrum. Dictionaries do also, and they stand front and center in this ideological struggle.

Any dictionary, standing alone (and out of context), is close to 100% prescriptivist. It tells you how to spell a word, how to pronounce it, how to use it, and what it means. What really matters in rating any dictionary is how well it deals with history and how well it evolves over time. Does it adapt? Does it add new words on a regular – and timely – basis? Does it simply show how a word is used, or does it insert editorial comments – a lot of “always” and “never” language? Does it show etymology – the history and development of a word – or just a fixed definition? Does it mention alternative definitions, or technical uses, even if obscure?

Dictionaries are vital: if we did not have agreed-upon definitions for our vocabulary, we would be unable to communicate. We can’t each have our own personal definitions. Would we be unable to make ourselves understood without dictionaries? No, but it would be more difficult to do and would get worse over time.

Beyond documenting the meaning of words at a moment in time, the role of dictionaries becomes less clear. Pronunciation? That’s hardly standard. I’ve become convinced that English has no rules of pronunciation, only a lot of traditions and conventions. All those orthographical marks you see in the dictionary aren’t dictates: they simply note how the word is usually pronounced.

But then there are the folks who labor under the belief that a word isn’t “real,” that it doesn’t exist, if it isn’t listed in the dictionary. Do you really want to tell me that I haven’t been allowed to use the word “blog” before today, because it wasn’t in the dictionary? It’s not a “real” word? Or that I can’t “friend” someone on Facebook because friend isn’t a verb?

Don’t be an ass. Every word is “real” as soon as someone chooses to use it. Every definition of a word is real as soon as a group of people agree to accept it.

Does that make every definition equally valid? No. I can’t, after all, go around using “beat up my neighbor” as a personal definition of “have lunch.” A statement like “Let’s have lunch,” would become impenetrable if everyone did that kind of thing. However, once even a handful of people agree to a particular definition, it’s got weight. We might not all use it; it might remain a slang definition; it might fade away and never even make it into the dictionary. But it’s real.

A Dictionary Story

Am I a connoisseur of dictionaries? Not exactly. I own a few, but with one major exception they’re probably the same kind the rest of you own: a ratty paperback from high school that my wife is too sentimental to recycle; a somewhat better college edition; two or three children’s versions (only a couple hundred words each) that my son has received as gifts. There’s a pocket writer’s dictionary around here somewhere, but I haven’t seen it in a couple of years. As a writer, I have a few specialized editions – a French-English dictionary, a dictionary of quotations – but those are tools of the trade. That’s no different from an auto mechanic having a shelf full of Chilton manuals, or a programmer with references for a dozen computer languages.

There is that exception I mentioned, though…

Several years ago, around 2001, I needed a dictionary. Or rather, I wanted one, since I was going through a period (personally and professionally) where I was constantly encountering new and unusual words. I wanted a good one so, armed with a short list of unusual words, I hit the street. In several bookstores, in the bowels of their reference sections, I pulled dictionaries, in various editions, from various publishers, and looked for those words. The one that did the best, I decided, would be the one I’d buy.

I no longer remember which placed second, third, fourth, and so on. But I know which won. In check after check, every dictionary – abridged, unabridged, concise, collegiate – came up short. Except for one: the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary. Say what you want about the Brits on any other point, even when it comes to how they speak and write, but when it comes to cataloging our common language they have everyone else beat. It’s not even a close contest.

For those of you familiar with the OED, you might suspect the problem that I was about to run into. “Isn’t that something like a 20 volume set? Costing over $1000? Weighing nearly 130 pounds, before you even pack it for shipping?” Okay, you probably wouldn’t know that last detail, but all those things are true. And let me tell you: as an apartment-dwelling starving writer and teacher, shelling out $1000 for a yard of book isn’t in the cards. So I settled down to ruminate over whether I could settle for the concise edition (about $40), or the two-volume shorter edition (about $100).

As luck would have it, I had also just joined one of those ‘get 5 books free for joining’ book clubs, with a really small future commitment. And what appeared in my mailbox as I was mulling over the decision? An offer from said book club to buy the entire OED for well under $200. How could that be possible?

At least twice (1971 and 1991) the OED has printed the entire dictionary in a special one-volume edition. Here’s the catch: it’s a folio-sized book, with especially thin paper, with nine pages of the original version micrographically printed on each page. Yes: you actually need a magnifying glass to read it (fortunately, it’s included). And so, to make this long story less long, buying the compact edition of the OED was my indulgence that year, and it is one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. Every home that takes education seriously should own one.

I don’t want to diminish the new AHD5. I can barely begin to imagine the effort that went into producing it. For those involved, it almost certainly was a labor of love (…those of you who disagree might not understand how much words and language can mean to people). They’ve made a lot of noise about adding 10,000 new words, and I’m looking forward to learning what many of them are. I’ll probably add the free online AHD to the list of reference links I give to my students.

AHD5 is improved over AHD4, and those of you with simpler expectations than I have might make it your preferred reference. However, I’m still committed to the OED (…even if I now use it online more than my microprinted edition). My commitment was reaffirmed when I “broke” AHD5 in less than a minute by feeding it obscure words until “No word definition found” appeared. Is that a fair test? Sure. OED isn’t perfect (neither lists “sumoylation,” for example), but it’s still more comprehensive, and that’s what I’m after.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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5 Responses to Dictionaries, Change, and “Real” Words: Welcome AHD5 (but my heart belongs to the OED)

  1. Pam Phillips says:

    You can access the OED online through the Minuteman Library System. It’s listed under Databases. And I didn’t even know that until your post got me wondering.
    What I usually use is the Merriam-Webster lookup via the Firefox search plugin.

    • Thanks, Pam. I have a login through the university where I work as well.
      For those in eastern Mass, Minuteman is here: http://www.mln.lib.ma.us.
      But you need a valid library card.
      Check your local system: I’m sure MLN is not the only one that has these wonderful add-on services (OED, Credo, NYTimes archives, Pop Culture Universe, Mango languages, InfoTrac, Medline, and many, many more). Libraries have so much more now than they did even a few years ago.

  2. Jan says:

    How do we ask questions that we want the better editor to answer? I’d like to know the difference is usage between “which” and “that” to start.


  3. Pingback: Is it a fact or is it facticity? | thebettereditor

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