Front Matter Friday

Friendly Guides and Well-Traveled Roads


I missed “Scripture Sunday.” I missed “Text Tuesday.” I even missed “Word Wednesday.” I’m a bad person. I have a good excuse, though: I got a job! I will not, however, let gainful employment stand in the way of Front Matter Friday (FMF). In fact, I’ll even give it to you a day early because the workplace gods have smiled upon me and I have the day off.

This week’s installment of FMF comes from my favorite general dictionary: Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (World Publishing Co. 1966). I’m not really sure why I prefer this dictionary to the others at my disposal. I suppose it’s a lot of little things, such as the layout, the typeface, the fact that it never let’s me down, etc. However, now that I’ve read the dictionary’s “Foreward,” I know why it’s editors think it’s the bees knees. Here’s what they have to say*. As usual, my comments on the text follow.


Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition

As this edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary is being prepared to go to press, the editors are systematically including in the plate proofs the death dates of recently deceased notables, new terms and senses resulting from the latest technological advancements, and such other challenges and additions as last-minute developments make necessary.

This final gesture in the interest of up-to-dateness is a rather symbolic one, a logical extension of the lexicographic principles that have guided the editors in the preparation of this work. For just as historical and scientific concepts refuse to remain fixed, unyielding entities, so too a living language will not permit itself to be immutably pinned down1. The excellent dictionaries of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson and Nathaniel Bailey, remarkable thought they were in their days2, have little more pertinence for the present-day reader of the New York Times that the alchemical writings of Roger Bacon have for a nuclear physicist.

Johnson in some knucklehead’s anteroom.

Not only could the earlier dictionaries have no knowledge of dilantin, snorkel, betatron, cortisone, ACTH, cybernetics, and vibraphone, but they would be of no help uncovering the meanings of extrapolate, parking meter, iron curtain, cold war, simulcast, and hot-foot. Moreover, even those senses of words that have continued currency from the time of Dr. Johnson to the present are in the earlier dictionaries defined in a language that falls strangely on 20th century ears3.

Recognizing that modern lexicography is a disciplined science, [the scholars and editorial workers who compiled this dictionary] were nevertheless determined to avoid the dogmatism that led Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce to define dictionary as “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.4” This dictionary was not create the impression that it was authoritarian, laying down the law about usage; it was to play, rather, the role of a friendly guide, pointing out the safe, well-traveled roads.5


Webster’s New World Dictionary … is neither an abridgement nor a revision of some earlier work. It is a new dictionary in which every definition has been written afresh in the simplest language consistent with accuracy and fullness.6

In choosing the words to be entered and defined, the editors used as their criterion the frequency of occurrence in contemporary American usage and in readings generally required of college and university students insofar as it could be determined. As a result, the dictionary contains over 142,000 vocabulary entries, more than any other comparable American desk dictionary. All entries are arranged in a single alphabetical list, so that there is no need to leaf through numerous supplements and prefatory lists, as well as the dictionary proper, to find such entries as Isaiah, Charlemagne, Atlantic, John Bull, viz., F.O.B., OHG., a priori, and coup de grace.



1) It’s true, living languages keep growing. New words are added all the time and some even end up in a dictionary.

2) Legend has it that, in 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson with an idea about creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. A contract with William Strahan (Scottish printer and publisher) and associates was signed on June 18, 1746. Johnson’s dictionary was not the first, but it was the most commonly used and imitated for the 150 years between its first publication and the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.

Bailey was the author of several dictionaries, including his Universal Etymological Dictionary, which appeared in 1721. His Dictionarium Britannicum (1730 and 1736) is said to be the primary resource mined by Johnson his dictionary.

3) It’s true. To get an idea of what the writer is speaking about here, check out this definition of “raccoon” from Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, which I included in a previous post about the name of the animal.

4) I looked but I couldn’t find any other snarky snaps about dictionaries from commentators like Bierce. I did however, find a few comments that shed some light on why Bierce wou have such a toxic take on these tomes. As Jonathon Green writes in Chasing the Sun,

The task of lexicography might, when viewed with the jaundiced eye, entail a good deal of drudgery, but like even the lowliest of parish priests, its practitioner remained the guardian of the sacred truths, the conduit that delivered them to the unversed masses.

Green also includes the thoughts of British poet and writer Rod Mengham, who notes that, in the 17th and 18th centuries:

The compiling of a dictionary … entailed an exercising of authority on an unprecedented scale. The lexicographer would determine what be included in, and what should be excluded from, a body of knowledge that the pragmatic user of his work would learn to regard as the foundation of the national language and culture…. The dictionary could become an instrument of social control, dispensed indirectly and fostering assumptions that need not be insisted on too forcibly.

Clearly, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump these ideas about lexicographers to prescriptivism.

5) This paragraph references, once again, the ongoing debate over prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries; that is, whether dictionaries ought to prescribe how the words in English ought to be used rather than describe how the words that comprise the English language are being used. The former (prescriptivists) are seen by their opponents as stodgy, anal-retentive types who fear the debasement of the language and (by extension) the decay of the social fabric, while the latter (descriptivists) are seen by their opponents as lacking in standards and guilty of shirking their duties as guardians of our remarkable tongue. (For more on this, see the link above and Kory Stamper’s Word by Word).

This is not to say, however, that there isn’t a “third way.” Think of it as a middle-of-the-road approach that allows lexicographers to stay abreast of the new terms making their way into the lexicon, while still calling attention to the more traditional uses or, at the very least, pointing out which words are best suited for particular situations (i.e., maybe don’t use “ain’t” in court or while defending your dissertation), hence the notion of “pointing out the safe, well-traveled roads.”

6) As referenced in the previous installment of Front Matter Friday, dictionary publishers are out to make a buck, which is why their editors go to great lengths to let folks know how their dictionary stands out from the lexicographical herd. Hence the editor of this volume making it known that this is indeed a “new dictionary” and not a previous release dressed in a new jacket, that the words this “college edition” contains will likely be encountered by actual college students, and, of course, that it is simultaneously authoritative and easy to use. More of this commercial speak can be found in these old-timey dictionary advertisements.


* Naturally, the Foreward is long and I’m not about to key-in the entire piece. If you’d like to read it in it’s entirety, check it out.

Front Matter Friday

From Bleak Compendium to Agreeable Companion

b494bb4e4c5e06dac49fbe5d63709bd00fab0a77If digging into the definitions and etymologies of words for mere shits and giggles wasn’t enough of an advertisement for my uncoolness, consider this: I like to read dictionary introductions. I know what you’re thinking. “What’s the matter, Joe, can’t find any golf to watch on the TV?”

Point taken. Admittedly, dictionary introductions can be rather dull affairs. Every so often, though, I come across one so full of attitude, opinion, and (dare I say) snark, that it deserves to be the subject of its own post. Hence the following (and first!) installment of “Front Matter Friday,” a new feature on The Butter Lamb offering  excerpts from dictionary introductions … err … on Friday, along with some commentary by yours truly. Yup, Friday just got better!

This week’s installment comes from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969). Not only does this introduction demonstrate the editors’ passion for dictionary authorship and general word nerd-ism, but it also contains some interesting ideas and phrases that reveal the editors’ beliefs about 1) the role dictionaries ought to play in society and 2) their competition in the book-seller’s marketplace.



American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969)

… At a time when the language, already a historical melting pot, is under constant challenge1—from the scientist, the bureaucrat, the broadcaster, the innovator of every political stripe, even the voyager in space—the [editors of the American Heritage Publishing Company] undertook to prepare a new dictionary. It would faithfully record our language, the duty of any lexicographer, but it would not, like so many others in these permissive times2, rest there. On the contrary, it would add the essential dimension of guidance, that sensible guidance toward grace and precision which intelligent people seek in a dictionary3. They will find it here, in a dictionary that is in many respects a notable departure from previous British and American lexicographical practice.

To many people, the dictionary is a forbidding volume, a useful but bleak compendium, to be referred to hastily for needed information, such as spelling and pronunciation. Yet, what a dictionary ought to be is a treasury of information about every aspect of words, our most essential tools of communication. It should be an agreeable companion. By knowledgeable use of the dictionary we should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of meaning are today, and its social status4.


A major concern of the editors has been the language used in the word definitions themselves. Our aim has been to phrase definitions in concise, lucid prose. Here, too, we have undertaken to eliminate “dictionary shorthand”—the frustrating signs, symbols, and abbreviations that are commonplace in other dictionaries5. Except for a few obvious abbreviations (n. for noun, v. for verb, and the like), we have followed a policy of spelling out all definitions. Where necessary to clarify a meaningful or idiomatic usage, the editors have included an example, either quoted from literature or staff written. We have also eliminated the meaningless lists of undefined compound forms which serve, in many American dictionaries, merely the purpose of inflating the so-called “entry count.” 6


… A primary aim of our staff has been to make this dictionary as readable as we possibly could. We editors know that dictionaries can be fascinating7. Working closely with them day by day, we see the vast amounts of interesting information that many users are not aware of, usually because it is hard to work one’s way through the thorny underbrush of conventional sign language to find the treasure that lies buried in the entries. It is our earnest hope that, by presenting our dictionary in inviting and readily readable fashion, without any lessening of authority8, we will encourage the reader to explore and enjoy the riches of our remarkable tongue.


Webster's_ThirdSome Thoughts:

1) I was struck by this notion that “the language …  is under constant challenge.” For editors of a dictionary, challenge is interesting word choice. Save for the use of euphemistic language, which obfuscates, language isn’t being “challenged” by words from scientific and other fields, it’s expanding.

2) The use of the phrase “these permissive times” is a bit of an elbow in the ribs referral to the Webster’s Third International Dictionary  (1961), which was considered by some in the dictionary world to be too (you guessed it) “permissive” in that it didn’t instruct readers in the use of “proper English.” Chief among Webster’s 3rd’s no-nos was the inclusion of the word “ain’t” (the horror). This gets us to the ongoing debate over prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries; that is, whether dictionaries ought to prescribe how the words in English ought to be used rather than describe how the words that comprise the English language are being used. The former (prescriptivists) are seen by their opponents as stodgy, anal-retentive types who fear the debasement of the language and (by extension) the decay of the social fabric, while the latter (descriptivists) are seen by their opponents as lacking in standards and guilty of shirking their duties as guardians of our remarkable tongue. (For more on this, see the link above and Kory Stamper’s Word by Word).

3) Following up on the preceding note, the gist here is that the dictionary ought to provide “sensible guidance toward grace and precision,” (read definitions that are accurate and socially acceptable), which is what intelligent people (read: discerning people wary of such permissiveness) want.

4) Do words have “social status”? Yes. This is why most dictionaries let you know if a certain use of a word is considered “archaic,” “obsolete,” “informal,” and the like. This is also a reference to the hub-bub over Webster’s third, which critics chastised for “eliminating the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper,” “improper,” “erroneous,” “humorous,” “jocular,” “poetic,” and “contemptuous,” etc.

5) Is “dictionary shorthand”—the signs, symbols, and abbreviations that are commonplace in other dictionaries—really “frustrating”? I suppose. Of course, most dictionaries that use such abbreviations include a key or guide to these abbreviations in the front. It seems to me that if you took a second to look up a word in a book, you can take another to look up the meaning of an abbreviation. I mean, it’s right there….

6) Do dictionary publishers really try to “inflate” their “entry counts.” In a word, yes. Or at least they have. For proof of this, check out old-timey dictionary advertisements that boast about the number of entries a dictionary contains. Stamper’s Word by Word has more on this too.

7) “We editors know that dictionaries can be fascinating.” This is word nerd-ism pure and simple, and I love it.

8) This sentence, “presenting our dictionary in inviting and readily readable fashion, without any lessening of authority,” demonstrates the dictionary maker’s dilemma. In addition to making a sideways reference to the whole permissiveness thing (see above), dictionary publishers worked hard to balance the commercial considerations of making a text that was both “authoritative” and “inviting.” This is less of a problem nowadays with digital (or online) dictionaries, but for publishers back in the day, it was real concern. Hence the use of images/illustrations and other graphic design techniques to make such large books more inviting. [Note: I didn’t include it here, but other parts of this introduction mentions the editors’ “fresh approach” that incorporates “the most recent advances in typographic design and printing.” – Ed.]