Copyright 1992 Globe Newspaper Company The Boston Globe
August 9, 1992, Sunday, City Edition
SECTION: BOOKS; Pg. B36
LENGTH: 1445 words
HEADLINE: Words to live by; Hopefully, the new American Heritage Dictionary enters the lists; BOOK REVIEW THE AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin. 2,184 pp. Illustrated. $ 39.95.
BYLINE: By David Mehegan, Globe Staff
BODY: It is one of the notable ironies of the age that as we lament the decrease in book-buying, newspaper-reading and the rise of pidgin literacy and video culture, debates over the right way to use words have intensified. Almost all words, it seems, have become fightin' words, with bitter debates over who has a right to use what words, especially (but not only) words that designate social subgroups.
Equally strange is that at a time when language is supposed to be devalued, English-language dictionaries should be such big business; when the American Heritage Dictionary was published in 1969, it sold more than a million copies in the first year. People do care about language - or at least they do buy literary reference books, especially dictionaries.
There are actually three dictionaries vying for the august name of Webster: Merriam-Webster, Webster's New World (published by Simon & Schuster) and, as of last year, the Random House Webster's. The latter Webster's - alert to the times - earned enormous media comment by striving to disclose all possible sexist implications of various words (such as girl), and by supplying an article recommending ungendered substitutes for male-gendered words (such as proposing ancestor for forefather). All these dictionaries have their sectaries, but for my money the most amazing and clever dictionary remains the American Heritage Dictionary, whose third edition is published next week. Of course, the third has many new words (16,000, to be exact, including laptop, televangelist and hiphop), and claims to be up to the minute, but then so does every new dictionary. What makes AHD unique is its town-meeting approach to acceptable usage. The publisher maintains the now-famous Usage Panel - composed of 176 well-known people from the fields of politics, education, literature and the mass media - which it polls before interpreting any controversial question of usage. The dictionary contains 500 "usage notes," which are said to be based upon consultations with the panel.
In many cases, where there is a divergence of opinion in the panel, the notes report the different views in percentage terms, then proceed to ponder the significance of the difference. The notes are meant to be (as linguist and Usage Panel chairman Geoffrey Nunberg writes in his introduction, "Usage in the American Heritage Dictionary: The Place of Criticism") small samples of linguistic criticism shared with the reader. The reader is implicitly encouraged to be a full partner in the debates.
On the question of whether "data" can be used as a singular noun, for example, 60 percent of the panel accepts a sentence like "The data is in," while 77 percent accept "We have very little data on the subject," in which, the usage note tells us, "the singularity of data is implicit in the use of the qualifier very little." Other more traditional dictionaries would simply make a judgment, however qualified, on the assumption that the reader wants the dictionary to answer the question, not present a menu of choices.
But it is in this very menu approach that the AHD is so thoroughly in the grass-roots spirit of the times; it claims to be many things, but it does not claim to be authoritative. (Even the panel includes decidedly nonauthoritative oddballs: actor Tony Randall and humorist Roy Blount Jr., to name two.)
Nunberg observes that "A healthy tradition of language criticism requires controversy." But the terms of controversy have changed. Formerly, lexicographic debates were between opponents who agreed upon the existence of a correct usage for a given word, however they might differ on the answer. But today the debate is between irreconcilable camps (which Nunberg calls the "descriptivists" and the "prescriptivists"). The first camp says dictionaries should just report usage as it exists, while the other sees language in a moral light and believes dictionaries have a duty, as Nunberg puts it, "to defend traditional values in the face of growing laxity and permissiveness."
The purely descriptivist view is always in the minority; otherwise no one would ever consult a dictionary. One doesn't open a dictionary simply to find a description, but to find some normative standard in order to avoid making a fool of oneself, or perhaps only to deter the scolding of bores and pedants. Everyone longs for an authority, even if only to flout. (See usage note at flaunt.) But the AHD equivocates in this controversy, declining to carry the moral standard, while acknowledging that it exists by reporting the controversies of the Usage Panel. In other words, dear reader, don't come to us expecting us to tell you what is right; here is what the best and the brightest say, and you can see that even they cannot agree, which means that you are authorized to make a choice and to take the consequences.
Some of the judgments of the panel are fascinating and mysterious. In the 1969 edition, for example, 44 percent of the panel found the word hopefully acceptable in a sentence such as "Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified." But in the third edition, the supporters of hopefully have melted away to a paltry 27 percent - even though, as the usage note points out, words like mercifully and frankly are fully acceptable. Knitting its brow and scratching its head, the anonymous Wise Voice of the usage note muses, "it is not easy to explain why critics dislike this use of hopefully," then proceeds to offer solutions to the writer who does not wish to earn the scorn of the stern 73 percent.
The entry at man is equally interesting. Here is a full-column usage note largely devoted to the use of man as a generic term for both men and women. After exhaustively sketching the roots of the word (in Old English, man meant "human being," with the words wer and wyf designating man and woman), the usage note reports that a significant majority of the panel supports man as a generic term, but "the women members significantly less than the men." The sentence "The Great Wall is the only man-made structure visible from space" was acceptable to 86 percent of the panel - 76 percent of the women and 91 percent of the men. Still, a large majority rejected the use of man in a sentence about activities specifically executed by women: "She manned the registration table at the Women's Club meeting" won't do. In all this discussion, the Wise Voice delicately finesses a judgment on whether use of man as a generic term is offensive, immoral or a threat to civilized values.
The usage notes give the impression of a sort of round-table discussion between the panelists, but that is apparently not how the system works. They are individually surveyed on touchy questions and their views compiled, reported and commented upon. If they did have round-table discussions (like Fred Friendly's panel discussions on PBS television), it is likely that discussions would lead to changes of opinion, and hence of the percentage results. That may happen after the dictionary appears, of course, which leads to an important point: Far from settling questions, the very creation of a dictionary catalyzes linguistic change. After reading the usage note, some of the panelists will hopefully reconsider and decide to accept hopefully next time around.
Besides the usage notes, the AHD also has fascinating notes on word history, synonyms and regional origins (commendably, the note with tonic points out that in Boston that word means a soft drink). It also restores the famous appendix of Indo-European roots, which relates English words to languages as remote as Sanskrit. That appendix was removed from the second edition, evoking an angry outcry from devotees. The book also has proper names, from Yuri Gagarin to Patagonia.
On the negative side, the AHD has maddeningly tiny type; maybe Houghton Mifflin should supply a magnifying glass, as the Oxford English Dictionary did for its two-volume edition. The awkward 8 1/2- x 11-inch page size remains, which makes the book too big and heavy to hold in one hand and leaf through with the other. It wants a bookstand, like an unabridged or a Bible. And with the illustrations displayed at the outer edge of each page, the columns of type seem to disappear into the binding.
A reader who loves words may find it hard to believe, after perusing this gigantic work of scholarship, compilation and interpretation (not to mention its numerous competitors), that the English language is decaying, fading or about to be replaced by MTV. But words still fascinate. Always, it seems, littera scripta manet: That which is written endures.