Words Enough

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

edited by William Morris
American Heritage and Houghton Mifflin, 1600 pp., $7.95 and up

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language College Edition, 1968

edited by Laurence Urdang, edited by Stuart Berg Flexner
Random House, 1600 pp., $6.95 and up

We do not want dictionaries. (Want, v. tr. 1. to tail to have; be without; lack.) There are more dictionaries abroad than a body (Regional) can properly shake a stick at (Informal). The Random House Dictionary, Unabridged, came out three years ago. Meanwhile Random House continued to emend and reprint their stocky portable, the American College Edition, based on their Unabridged. And now there emerges from another quarter, all new, the medium-sprawling and imposingly underpriced American Heritage Dictionary.

Nor shall we want copies of dictionaries. The demand for the five-pounder last mentioned could soar annually into the millions of copies without embarrassing the publishers, so prudent has been their contingency planning.

To see this spate in its historical setting we must look away back to 1961, a year best known to lexicographical publishers as the year of the Webster-Merriam Third International. This big book sparked an unwonted if not unwanted public involvement by sparking a confusion between descriptive and prescriptive lexicography.

Scientific linguistics describes and does not prescribe. But surely the public preoccupation with this science was not to be counted on for vast sales of a Webster Unabridged. There are a variety of things you can do with the book, like looking up the dates of James Buchanan or seeing how to pronounce Bialystok; but laymen continued to see its central role as the normative one of establishing correct usage. The Webster Unabridged in its various editions had stood for generations as proof of correctness; it was named, even, for America’s first great arbiter of tasteful English. And then there came, on the heels of this tradition, the ponderous Webster-Merriam Third International. Like earlier editions, it was just awful. (Awful, adj. 4. solemnly impressive; inspiring awe.) Unlike earlier editions, it had gone descriptive. It had shifted its allegiance from what should be to what is. But the public, less nimble in its shifts of attitude, saw the weighty volume still as laying down the law.

Public response was lively in an undeserved if not unforeseen way. Familiar mistakes in English were seen to have sudden official sanction. The Webster-Merriam had abdicated its prescriptive responsibility while retaining its prescriptive power. One wonders in what measure the latter-day ugly American (agendas, publicity-wise, hopefully 2) may owe its virulence to the indiscriminate authority of this awful tome.

Ain’t has long been the stock example of what schoolteachers are against. In its favor there has been not only the charm of permissiveness, moreover, but also, in the first person singular, an appeal to reason: the m of am’t I? inevitably goes to n before t by a law of assimilation that anyone can feel, and then the a lengthens in compensation for what is felt as a weakening in the consonant. Yet it seems that in this celebrated instance the schoolteachers have been more than a match for the combined forces of permissiveness and reason, and that their prescription has become descriptive fact. Today the Random House dictionaries describe ain’t, for the ordinary…

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