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 educated American, as self-conscious vernacular.

These dictionaries retain the descriptive mood. They give us hopefully 2 and agendas straight out, dead of pan and strong of stomach. The normative void that the Third International left behind it went on aching, and this is cited as a major reason for the American Heritage Dictionary.

Good usage was determined for this dictionary by a distinguished panel of a hundred writers, editors, and educators. An effective way was devised of combining the benefits of description and prescription and even being descriptive about the prescriptions. Common uses are recorded, and then, where evaluation is called for, the numerical vote of the panel is shown. Hopefully 2, for instance, was swallowed by 44 percent; agendas by 59 percent. Some of my best friends were on the panel, but these scores do little credit to the others on the panel.

The system, however, is excellent. To use this dictionary as a guide to good usage simply avoid all the usages, perhaps 300 in number, that were brought to a vote at all; for to put a usage to a vote is to question it, and to question it is to prove it questionable. So used, the dictionary becomes in its prescriptive or proscriptive role a direct reflection of the editor’s own good taste in the good old-fashioned way.

Some 800 notes on usage are conspicuously inserted at the appropriate dictionary entries. About 500 of them are categorical, with no question of a vote. They convey incontestable and often subtle observations such as that “able to” can govern an active infinitive and not a passive one, or that “amenable to” governs a gerund and not an infinitive. The other 300, the voted ones, I advised taking as categorical proscriptions; but they have also their descriptive value, as sources of interesting if disturbing statistics on the literary tastes of a hundred respected Americans.


Altogether, I find the usage notes an unusual and commendable enrichment. But the most startling innovation in this dictionary lies rather in a scientific direction, independent of norms of usage. It is a long list of the Indo-European roots and the English words that embody them. If the columns comprising this list were laid end to end they would run to 114 feet. This appendix is a contribution not only to education but to scholarship; linguists of my acquaintance are finding it a more useful source than what had been available. Moreover the etymologies in the body of the dictionary are full and ubiquitous, a fitting outgrowth of the 114 feet of roots.

It is to the publishers’ eternal credit to have catered so generously to an abstractly scientific interest on the part of a small fraction of the many expected buyers. That fraction will have every encouragement to grow. Etymology has power to fascinate, and many buyers will get happily hooked by it as they thumb the book. Etymology has the appeal of an experimental science with none of the fuss. You get to pursuing it in reverie while reading your newspaper or driving your car. Uniformities of derivation have been borne in on you, and you keep trying them on new cases. A hypothesis strikes you, and when you get back to the dictionary you check. If you were right you are pleased with yourself, and if you were wrong you are pleased with the surprise etymology. Or, if you are simply at a loss to imagine an etymology for some word, you look it up out of curiosity. The better you get, up to a point, the odder and more rewarding these unimagined answers tend to be; for you have learned to see through the ordinary cases. Eventually, I suppose, you get so good that the cases you still have to look up all say “etymology obscure”; but it will have been a great game while it lasted.

The front matter of the Random House Unabridged included essays on phonetics, dialects, usage, and history of the English language by Kemp Malone, Raven McDavid, and Arthur J. Bronstein. These are preserved in the College Edition, except that Malone’s historical survey gave way to an anonymous one. The American Heritage Dictionary includes a sheaf of essays on these and further topics by Morris Bishop, Morton Bloomfield, Richard Ohmann, Henry Lee Smith, Jr., Wayne O’Neil, Harry Kucera, and Calvert Watkins. Watkins is the authority behind the 114-foot tabulation of Indo-European roots and fruits, and he has written an instructive piece on Indo-European research and prehistory to go with it. Bloomfield, an eminent Anglo-Saxonist, was just the man to pick up the thread at the dawn of history and carry on from there. Ohmann sketches the plan of structural linguistics. Kucera says what computers can do for language study. O’Neil and Smith relate phonetics to traditional English spelling on the one hand and to dialects on the other.

Mostly these scholars brief the layman on the scholarly consensus. But at a point in Smith’s essay I sensed that I was getting this scholar’s new slant. He treats the sound h as a glide, on a par with y and w. The glide y is the y that we hear between be and off. The glide w is the w that we hear in the middle of phooey. This much is standard phonetic classification. But it is startling to see h treated as a glide, and reported after stressed vowels such as the a in dare. We do not think of h after a vowel, and when we try to enact Smith’s account we sound breathy because we overdo it. I am now persuaded, however, and in my mild way I am enjoying the new outlook.

Another flashback now to Random House. Their College Edition omits the colored atlas section and the dictionaries of translation that brightened up the back of the Unabridged. But it retains some useful tabulations at that point, notably a list of symbols and a publishers’ style sheet. I suppose this last must be accounted a concession to the prescriptive, but it runs closer to typography than to belles lettres.

In the main body of the Random House Unabridged, each new letter was heralded by an ornamental display of about a dozen phases of that letter in the history of the alphabet. These displays carry over into the College Edition. The American Heritage Dictionary has followed suit, departing only in detail. The dictionaries are essentially alike also in their charts of the Indo-European family tree, and in their inclusion, at the appropriate entries, of tables such as that of the chemical elements. The American Heritage Dictionary outdoes the Random House College Edition in these useful tables. It adds the Morse code, a table of calendars, a table of geologic periods, and a table listing and illustrating the taxonomic categories. This last is apt to confuse; it does not show which taxa are exhaustive and which are illustrative, and it does not suggest which of the illustrative lower taxa are contained in which of the higher ones. But I recognize that it is hard to convey much of this without excessive tabulation.


The Random House College Edition is illustrated with a profusion of little black line cuts, set into the text. These are inherited selectively from the Unabridged. They are strikingly close also to those in the American College Dictionary; many are merely redrawn with the creature facing another way. Where the entry is geographical, the illustrative cut is a little sketch map showing the location. This helpful device has carried over into the American Heritage Dictionary.

But in its illustrations the American Heritage Dictionary has made a bold departure. Its 4,000 little pictures are strewn at irregular intervals down the broad and otherwise blank outer margins of the pages. They are largely halftones, and they draw largely upon great paintings and tastefully illustrated source books. It is a pleasure simply to scan these margins. A list of 4,000 acknowledgments in an appendix gives the pedigree of every picture.

The American Heritage Dictionary is said to have 155,000 entries. The Random House College Edition is its equal in thickness, but smaller in format; and I estimate its entries at 100,000. One of its 55,000 misses is shegetz. But there are extras on both sides. The Random House College Edition lists the two Valdemars, and in both spellings; the American Heritage has none of that.

The principle of individuation of entries in the American Heritage Dictionary is puzzling. The article on get runs to eleven column inches and includes some seventy subordinate headings such as get about, get across, get ahead, get along, get at, get away with, and so on to get with. Farther down the page, then, as independent entries not subordinated to get, there appear get away, get out, get together, and get up. These verb phrases prove to be interspersed with the corresponding nouns, again as independent entries: getaway, get-out, get-together, and get-up. I see no more substantial reason for the double standard.

Christian names are listed in the main body of the American Heritage Dictionary; separately in the Random House. Both books give the etymologies; indeed, the etymological brilliance of the American Heritage Dictionary must not be allowed to blind us to the commendable treatment of that side of things in the Random House Edition. But I was surprised to see Norma explained in the latter as feminine of Norman; I expected the Latin account, as in the American Heritage. The American Heritage surprised me in listing Sheila and not Karen; these names seem to me to have reached our shores on the same wave.

Both dictionaries run their encyclopedic listings of places and persons into the main word list. In both books these listings are limited to little more than what suffices for identification; but that little more is not immune to error. Both books muff Macao, in their different ways. The American Heritage Dictionary calls it an island. This may have come of reading the World Almanac, or perhaps some eighteenth-century source. The Random House College Edition redundantly calls the water at Macao the Chu-Kiang River, as if to say the Pearl River River. The latter dictionary also evidently muffs San Marino, giving it 38 square miles; the American Heritage and other sources agree on 23.

Not that such agreement is conclusive. Forty to sixty years ago the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the World Almanac, Scott’s stamp albums, and the American atlases and dictionaries were in general agreement on eight square miles for Monaco, but this figure was fourteen times too big. The Britannica, eleventh edition, elaborated: “8 sq. m., the length being 2 1/4 m. and the width varying from 165 to 1100 yds.” An editor of the fourteenth edition spotted the arithmetical absurdity and deleted the correct length and width. Perhaps, to do him justice, he checked the area in some book that had copied it from the Britannica.

The American Heritage Dictionary is out of date on the Polish Corridor. The Random House College Edition has it right. Both books describe Perm as “formerly Molotov,” neglecting us pre-Molotovians to whom it was always Perm. Both books are fallible on foreign names. Random House goes doubly wrong on the Turkish name for Scutari. American Heritage skips that word but fumbles the somewhat similar Turkish name for Skoplje. American Heritage misplaces the stress in Bialystok, Otranto, and Lourenço Marques. American Heritage does somewhat better than Random House on the pronounciation of Lódz.

Both are good books. You would expect each to cost much more than it does. Between them I would choose the American Heritage Dictionary, paying the extra dollar.

This Issue

December 4, 1969