The big browse: Wandering through the new American Heritage Dictionary

[Alyson Kuhn] Last month, we wrote about key design aspects of the Fifth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, a.k.a. AHD5. I’ve now had a month to get cozy with my new dictionary … and to chat with Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the dictionary group at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Margaret Anne Miles, the publisher’s art guru for illustrations. It’s tempting to say that I have the skinny (n. Slang Inside information; the real facts) on how new words, new senses and new illustrations find their way into this very big, but very selective, book. It Googles the mind!

Skimming for the definition of skinny, I am sidetracked by the illustrations for skimmer (Miscellaneous, domestic and clothing), both photographed in HMH’s digital in-house studio.

Yes, I have just used Google as a verb, but incorrectly. AHD5 defines Google thusly: “A trademark for an Internet search engine. This trademark often occurs in print as a verb, sometimes in lowercase: ‘A high school English teacher recently Googled a phrase in one student’s paper and found it had been taken from a sample essay of an online editing service.'” Steven Kleinedler comments, “The Google search engine was still relatively new when the editorial work on the Fourth Edition came to a close in late 1999, and the use of Google as a verb was just beginning. We included it in the batch of words that were added to the printing of the Fourth Edition that was released in 2006.”

Browsing right along: Google is between goofy and googol. I did not know that goofy is a skateboarding or snowboarding stance (right foot forward). Or that googol — the number 10 raised to the power 100 — was coined by a 9-year-old. Now I do.

Boiler (Technology): Labels identify key components of a working water-tube boiler. Wyvern (Miscellaneous, heraldry): Heraldic motifs, including this one, are illustrated rather than photographed, to provide maximum focus on the term being defined (rampant vs. regardant, for example). HMH/Precision Graphics.

I ask Kleinedler about the respective importance of word history and new usage, and he observes, “Contemporary dictionaries incorporate as many widespread language shifts as possible. Some people might think the rate of change is accelerating, but all living languages undergo change all the time. It’s true that a burst of technology in the ’70s and ’80s influenced the language, but, to give just a single example, the burst of technology in the 1800s during the Industrial Revolution changed language greatly, too.”

Cat’s-paw (Miscellaneous): Miles tied this knot to bring its definition to life. In-house photo. Complete metamorphosis (Science): An instructional rendering from a painting by Elizabeth Morales, one of HMH’s freelance illustrators for general sciences.

The nautical definition of cat’s paw is: “A knot made by twisting a section of rope to form two adjacent eyes through which a hook is passed, used in hoisting.” AHD5 includes two additional meanings for cat’s-paw: “A person used by another as a dupe or tool [from a fable about a monkey that used a cat’s paw to pull chestnuts out of a fire], and a light breeze that ruffles small areas of a water surface.” The next entry is catsuit, which is not illustrated, but the definition does the trick.

Wedge (Miscellaneous, sports and clothing): The illustration shows props shot in the HMH in-house digital camera studio. Squash blossom (Arts, jewelry): This necklace, which originally belonged to Miles’ grandmother, was also photographed in-house.

I ask Miles to summarize how she goes about selecting which entries will be illustrated. “The aim is to have an appealing range of subjects illustrated throughout the dictionary. Portraits, for example, depict the well-known and the lesser-known, people from throughout history — Alexander the Great to Zhou Enlai — and from all walks of life — activist César Chávez to zoologist Jane Goodall.” (Yes, Miles does the A–Z range automatically, with no encouragement from me.)

Subcategories in the Arts include Textiles (paisley), Objets d’art (potiche), and Visual Arts (stele). Paisley and potiche were photographed in-house; Miles photographed the stele in Harvard Yard.

“We illustrate in five main subject categories: Arts, History, Science, Technology and Miscellaneous,” Miles continues. “Each category has many subcategories. The decision as to whether an entry will be illustrated with a photograph or a rendering is based on which medium is most instructional and informative. For instance, a cutaway rendering of a blast furnace or boiler can tell you how it works, something one cannot convey in a photograph.”

Frederick Douglass and Vinnie Hoxie (History, biography): These photographs, from the collection of the Library of Congress, complement the biographical entries. Hoxie (1847–1914), of whom I’d never heard, is the sculptor of the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln (unveiled in 1871) in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The publishers have an un-secret weapon, their Usage Panel. The first Usage Panel provided feedback in the mid-1960s in preparation for the First Edition of 1969. Panelists (currently close to 150) are authors, educators, linguists, poets and other people whose work involves a passion for words. About once a year, the editorial staff, with the guidance of current Usage Ballot chair Steven Pinker, sends every panelist a ballot with 25–30 questions. Kleinedler elaborates, “Sometimes we ask the panelists whether they simply agree or disagree about a particular usage issue. Or we might ask of a particular usage, ‘Do you find this usage acceptable?’ and ‘Would you use it yourself?’ Or we might ask the panelists if there are any circumstances in which they might find themselves using a particular usage in speech that they might not use in writing.”

Endive: Subcaptions in the Fifth Edition include scientific names.

I ask Kleinedler about one of my chronic quandaries: the use of a plural pronoun following a singular subject … and he smoothly refers me to the fabulous Usage Note at they. He adds that he personally uses a plural pronoun after a singular subject in informal situations. (“In casual speech, most people do, whether they realize it or not.”) For more formal circumstances, he rephrases the sentence to avoid this issue. The Usage Note concludes: “The trend then is clear. Writers who feel they are overturning convention by using they with a singular antecedent should bear in mind that much of their audience may not care, and with time, this population is almost certain to grow.”

Graph: As with endive, the illustration shows two specific types of something. Miles calls such entries “twofers.”

The Usage Notes can be quite chatty. They frequently include the percentage of Usage Panel members who agreed or disagreed with a given usage in the Fourth Edition, and the updated percentage for the Fifth. The usage note for enormity is 19 lines. Kleinedler comments, “People who are mindful of the precision of language are aware of the distinction between enormity and enormousness. It’s important that a dictionary inform users of this kind of distinction that is observed in careful speech and writing, because there are circumstances in which using the wrong word might have unintended consequences.” Indeed, the usage note concludes, “… it may be best to avoid [it] where enormity’s sense of monstrousness may give rise to unintended smirks.”

The “letter opener” page shows woodblock letters with this caption: “In woodblock printing, ink is applied to blocks of wood in which letters have been carved in relief.”

I love the Y page, which features several of my favorite chatty words: yabber, yack, yackety-yak, yadda yadda yadda and yak. Yep! Also yakuza, about which I recently read a big article. Kleinedler comments, “Yakuza was added for the Third Edition. Definitely worth noting is that for the Fifth Edition, the etymology of yakuza was completely rewritten and expanded in great detail. It’s an excellent example of the impressive scholarship that is a hallmark of our etymology program. And yadda yadda yadda was added for the Fourth Edition.”

And the last entry on this page is y’all, with a one-line definition: Chiefly Southern US Variant of you-all. This is followed by a gloriously detailed analysis (more than 30 lines) titled “Our Living Language.” What can I say, except yahoo!

Steven Kleinedler first began working as a lexicographer in 1989 and has been with the American Heritage Dictionary since 1997. He is frequently quoted in newspaper and magazine articles, has done hundreds of radio interviews, and wrote The Semantics of Marriage Equality for in November 2009.

Margaret Anne Miles majored in French Civilization, with a strong background in liberal arts and art history. She has worked at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt her entire career — and already has 21 autographs from colleagues on the staff page of her working copy of the Fifth Edition.

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Comments (4)

  1. Posted by Bill Senkus on 03.8.12 at 3:30 pm

    Bravo, Alyson! You have reminded me that one of the great pleasures of a good dictionary is all the information other than the definition itself. Too often these days I simply go to the www and grab the meaning without getting all that extra stuff that makes words so fun.

  2. Posted by Susan on 03.8.12 at 7:31 pm

    Absolutely fascinating and so fun! Alyson–you should do at least a post a week about what you find in the new AHD5. From A to Z.

  3. Posted by A Kuhntributor on 03.9.12 at 5:39 pm

    Thanks, Susan! My delightful discovery of yesterday concerns “whatever,” which is sandwiched between whatchamacallit and whatnot (which is in turn followed by whatsit and whatsoever). The meaning I was hunting for is indeed provided: interj. Informal Used to indicate indifference to or scorn for something, such as a remark or suggestion: We’ve having pizza tonight. — Whatever. I don’t care. Whatever will I find next?!

  4. Posted by Linda on 03.13.12 at 1:30 pm

    Alyson, I can already see into your future — acquiring a seat on the Usage Panel! You would be perfect! Thanks again for such a magnificent tour of the dictionary.

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