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.]