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Wars of Words

Dividing the world into prescriptivists and descriptivists.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By DAVID SKINNER
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The fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin, was released last fall. In the typecast world of dictionary publishing, American Heritage is the “conservative” dictionary. Developed in the 1960s in the wake of company president James Parton’s failed attempt to wrest control of the G. and C. Merriam Co., which had recently become notorious for the publication of the “permissive” dictionary, Webster’s Third, the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary was deliberately marketed as the choice of squares and fogeys.

Dwight Macdonald, ca. 1950

Dwight Macdonald, ca. 1950

Bettmann / Corbis

A print advertisement for the new dictionary showed a hippie teenager and said, “He doesn’t like your politics; why should he like your dictionary?” This tone of square-jawed resistance to the vulgarizing pull of popular culture provoked jeers in some quarters. American Heritage was nicknamed the “Goldwater dictionary,” and when that seemed too generous, linguists took to calling it the “McCarthy dictionary.”

What, exactly, would make a dictionary conservative? Does it define welfare state as “government that fails to improve the welfare of dependants while curtailing the economic freedom of others”? Not exactly. Only in its preferences concerning a relatively small set of disputed usages could a major commercial dictionary be notably conservative. To ensure that American Heritage be notable in just this manner, the publisher established a usage panel of distinguished writers and scholars, including several veterans of the controversy over Webster’s Third: Jacques Barzun, Dwight Macdonald, and Wilson Follett. The group was prestigious and old. Of 95 members, the scholar Patrick Kilburn discovered, only six were under 50, while a full 28 had been born in the 19th century.

In one very specific way, American Heritage may have seemed unconservative. It was the first American dictionary to publish an entry for the F-word. Opinions differ on the ideological color of this decision, however. If by “conservative” one means “conscious of linguistic history in all its variety,” then dropping the F-bomb into the encyclopedic pages of a family-friendly dictionary was perfectly righteous.

Though the usage panel has endured as a symbol of linguistic authority, its role in the making of the dictionary is necessarily minor relative to the work of the actual lexicographers. Where its influence is sometimes visible is in the dictionary’s excellent usage notes, which often report what percentage of the panel’s members approve of a given usage and also whether that percentage has been stable in the last four decades.

Consider the traditionalist distinction between comprise and compose, best remembered in the formula “the whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole.” According to the new edition, in the 1960s, 53 percent of the panel objected to The union is comprised of fifty states while only 35 percent objected as late as 1996.

Recently, I came across a list of comments by early usage panelists that give the flavor of their hidden editorializing, often solicited in reaction to example sentences such as “He invited Mary and myself” and “Neither Mr. Jones nor myself is in favor of this.” Red Smith, the sportswriter, said myself in the first example was “unforgivable,” adding that “myself is the refuge of idiots taught early that me is a dirty word.”

Katherine Anne Porter is quoted more than once in these comments, which I found in the papers of Dwight Macdonald at the Yale University Library. As in her austerely correct prose, Porter preferred to take a hard line. She called it a “vicious, ignorant misuse” to employ nauseous (instead of nauseated) to mean “feeling nausea,” and 88 percent of the panel agreed with her. Three decades later, the majority was a minority, as 61 percent of the usage panel approved of this “misuse” in the sentence “Roller coasters make me nauseous.” The “conservative” dictionary thus observes that “the word presents a classic example of a word whose traditional, ‘correct’ usage is being supplanted by a newer, ‘incorrect’ one.”

If there was a “liberal” dictionary, it was Webster’s Third. Its editor was openly disdainful about “the rules” of language, and his dictionary seemed strangely cozy with the loose argot of popular ­culture, from beatnik and hipster to the language of Polly Adler, Mickey Spillane, and other purveyors of what might be called sidemouth English. The response to its publication was thunderous. The New York Times called on Merriam to take back the 13-pound Webster’s Third and start over. In the Atlantic, Wilson Follett called the dictionary “a very great calamity,” and its editors “saboteurs.” In the New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald compared Webster’s Third to the end of civilization. James Parton and American Heritage, which had been looking to buy a controlling interest in Merriam, tried to use the controversy as an excuse for taking over.

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