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The Word

Is this the last print dictionary?

An American Heritage for the digital age

In September 1969, the Beatles released “Abbey Road,” filmgoers flocked to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and a coup in Libya brought to power a young army colonel named Moammar Khadafy. Meanwhile, the Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Co. was engaged in a publicity blitz for its brand-new American Heritage Dictionary, with advertisements declaring, “Dictionaries will never be the same again.”

How times have changed. Forty-two years later, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (as the company is now known) is publishing the fifth edition of its flagship dictionary with quite a different message. As the marketing materials portentously ask, “Will this be the last print dictionary ever made?” (Disclosure: My own upcoming book about language and technology will be published by HMH.)


The landscape for American dictionaries was indeed drastically different in the late ’60s. As the Globe reported, publisher James Parton raised more than $4 million to create a glossy new unabridged dictionary “which its backers hope will become as standard a feature in the average American home as the television set.” The first printing of 500,000 copies was accompanied by an aggressive sales campaign, touting the dictionary’s readable format, copious illustrations, sensible definitions and usage notes, and expansive etymologies.

Gone are the days when a dictionary could aspire to be a common household item. Today the average consumer might wonder whether it’s worth having a print dictionary in the home or office at all--and if so, whether he needs a new one. Why bother with an unwieldy doorstop when you can more easily hunt down definitions online?

Now running to more than 2,100 oversized pages, AHD5 is not the handiest dictionary out there, but it remains the most aesthetically pleasing and a reminder of what print does well. Margins are stuffed with photos and drawings that enlighten rather than merely adorn, and alphabetical section openers introduce A to Z with attractive (and historically intriguing) typographical images.


Besides the art on the page, what has set AHD apart is its Usage Panel, a group of about 200 prominent writers and scholars who are surveyed on various points of English usage. (The current group includes Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Jonathan Franzen, Henry Louis Gates, Antonin Scalia, and David Sedaris.) The panel was a big selling point for the first edition: Back then, Houghton was able to capitalize on the backlash against the market leader in the unabridged dictionary market, Webster’s Third New International, which was widely accused of having abandoned the duty of the dictionary to distinguish good usage from bad.

The often conservative pronouncements of the Usage Panel have never greatly interfered with the descriptive work of AHD’s lexicographers--who, after all, were the first to include the full panoply of vulgar four-letter words in 1969 (complete with careful etymological notes). Over the years, however, the panelists have grown less reactionary, and the notes derived from their opinions are more accepting of informal, not-quite-standard styles.

The new chair of the Usage Panel, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, observes in his introductory essay that “resistance is melting” to formerly nettlesome usage points involving such words as comprise, decimate, graduate, moot, and quote. Pinker examined the survey responses to one item of particular interest to him: the rise of the irregular past-tense verb snuck at the expense of the regular sneaked, as discussed in his 1999 book, “Words and Rules.” He found that the shift has been precipitated not so much by a mellowing of the panelists as they grow older but by “an increasing number of younger panelists who have no problem with snuck.” Thus are innovations snuck into the language.


When we think of linguistic innovations, though, it’s usually not of the gradual snuck variety, but rather the shiny new lexical additions. AHD5 has plenty, with 10,000 new words and senses added to this edition. There is ample though by no means exhaustive representation of the latest techie words: data mining, tweet, crowdsourcing, and unfriend, but not hashtag, autocorrect, or Facebook as a verb. From the world of music there is reggaeton, triphop, turntablism, and crunk, but not dubstep, cowpunk, or qawwali. And from contemporary slang there is dawg (a male friend or acquaintance), booyah (an interjection expressing exultation), hella (very or extremely), and schwag (marijuana of inferior quality), but not nom (the sound or act of pleasurable eating), lulz (laughs), or OMG (oh my God)--though the last two do get discussed in John R. Rickford’s fine essay on “Our Living Language.”

Along with a complete overhaul of the text, American Heritage is branching out digitally, with a free website (www.ahdictionary.com) that provides definitions and illustrations, as well as a paid app that serves up all content including usage notes and etymologies. Is this the last print dictionary? Of course not, but given the troubles of the publishing industry, dictionary-makers would be foolish to put all their eggs in the print basket.


The publisher is covering its bets: The purchase includes a subscription to a new AHD app, so you can compare riffling through actual pages with the virtual ones on your smartphone or tablet. Call me a sucker for thumb tabs, but for now I’ll stick with the pleasures of the paper edition. I’m just not ready to unfriend it.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com and the former On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine.