Dictionary for wordsmiths

Monday Books

April 12, 1993|By Joseph Gallagher

SINCE it first appeared in 1969, the American Heritage Dictionary has been my favorite because of two unique features: the decisions of a panel of experts on the acceptability of various word usages and the 51-page index listing the so-called proto-Indo-European roots underlying English words.

Thus the root "ster" (connoting stiffness) hides within words like stare, starch, stork, strut, startle and starve. When you consult these words and most other words in the body of the text, you are referred to the proper root in the index.

A second edition in the '70s listed new words, but incorporated no major changes. A third edition appeared a few months ago. It is different enough to have made me want to own it. The price is $39.95, but many stores are selling it at a hefty discount. Speaking of hefty, it weighs 6 pounds, 13 ounces -- 26 ounces more than my old one. My arthritic hands would have preferred to handle it in two volumes.

The old volume had 155,000 entries and 1,550 pages. The new contains more than 200,000 entries and 2,140 pages. There are said to be 16,000 "new" words and meanings (new since when?), but "wannabe," for instance, is not one of them, though "wonk" is. Curiously, it has 10 fewer pages of roots, though relevant English derivatives are highlighted better. Have the editors grown less sure of the link between certain words and their presumed roots?

Retained are all the naughty words which sparked so much controversy in the first edition. Clearly labeled "vulgar slang," they include each naughty word, along with an illuminating "word history." These histories, numbering more than 400, are an entirely new feature and are the work of one editor. Though I found his choices a bit odd at times, and his comments occasionally strained and overly scholarly, they are generally enjoyable.

Also retained are highly discriminating synonym paragraphs (more than 900), and usage notes (more than 500). The usage panel of 173 experts included wordsmiths like Edwin Newman, Alistair Cooke, Annie Dillard, Garrison Keillor and Anne Tyler. This panel tells you how a word should be used, thereby making it the most prescriptive of the best-selling dictionaries.

A final new feature is some 100 regional notes. Anne Tyler may be behind two references I found to "Baltimore dialect." (See "durn," under "damned," and "drudge.") On other scores, Baltimore loses out: Gone from the spacious margins are illustrations of the Baltimore oriole and Charles Center (under Mies van der Rohe, spelled Van Der in the new volume). The first edition said this oriole was named "after Lord Baltimore: the colors of the male are the same as those in his coat-of-arms." Disappointingly, the new text merely says: "After Lord Baltimore."

Also disappointingly, the new volume makes almost no attempt to explain the origin of proper names. Where historical people are pictured, I wish the editors had added their dates. There is plenty of room for this, and the reader would be spared having to extract the dates from the text. Pleasingly, First Ladies are pictured along with their husbands.

Words beginning with "s" get the most pages (241); "x" gets the least (three). Among the longest entries are "take" and "turn," each requiring more than a full page. "Funky" is cited as among the most difficult words to define precisely. "Very close veins" is acknowledged as a regionalism. Especially interesting discussions are devoted to "holocaust," "hopefully," "could care less" and "goes" as a substitute for "says." A half page is devoted to double negatives. TV news announcers notwithstanding, the accent in "formidable" and "pastoral" is on the first syllable. In "electoral," it's on the second. The 1969 text accents "harasser" and "harassment" on the first syllable; this new dictionary restricts it to the second. Usage notes illumine the distinction between a foundering and a floundering marriage, between a drunk driver and a drunken one, between tortuous and torturous paths.

Unusual for dictionaries, wit and elegance appear in many comments. Thus, "writers who are unwiling to risk censure are advised to avoid" using "fortuitous" for "fortunate." And despite the correctness of "already" and "altogether," "the writer who chooses to risk the spelling 'alright' had best be confident that readers will acknowledge it as a token of wilful unconventionality rather than as a mark of ignorance."

In sum: Despite my reservations, I have to agree with the eminent lexiphile who rated this third edition as "surely the most pleasurable dictionary ever published in this country."

And the most suited to our national character.

Joseph Gallagher is a priest of the Baltimore archdiocese.

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