Review – The Heritage of American Heritage by Don Bush
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000, is a massive, 2074-page volume with fascinating articles on the roots of the language and current usage.
The First Edition appeared in 1969, only eight years after the Merriam-WebsterThird New International Dictionary aroused a storm of protest that resounds to this day. Philip Gove, Webster’s editor, had reduced the number of entries from 600,000 to 450,000, but included 100,000 new definitions, many attached to words like beatnik. He had also used sources like Art Linkletter and TWA timetables, maintaining that not all language is formal. He had decreased use of the “slang” label and banished “colloquial” entirely, relying instead on quotations that gave a feel for words in context.
Gove was denounced as “permissive.” He had even included ain’t in the dictionary (with a note “disapproved by many”). A New Yorker cartoon depicted a Merriam-Webster receptionist responding, “Dr. Gove ain’t in.”
But Gove was largely backed by the academics. After all, 300 scholars had labored on the dictionary for 27 years, exercising the new science of linguistics, which examines how languages are actually used and how they change. STC has a ringside seat for this phenomenon in high-tech.
Among Gove’s defenders was Bergen Evans, host of a 1950s prime-time TV show on grammar (!) and co-author of “A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary American Usage” (Random House, 1957). In “But What’s a Dictionary For?” (Atlantic, May 1962), Evans argued that “correctness can rest only upon usage, for the simple reason that there is nothing else for it to rest on.” He had historical precedents. Samuel Johnson in his epochal 1755 dictionary wrote, “the pen must at length comply with the tongue”; Herbert Coleridge, helping conceive the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote collaborator Richard Trench (1860) that a dictionary should not just “select the good words.”
Enter American Heritage
Nevertheless, people attacked the1961 Webster’ with a fury akin to that of right-wing radio. Articles described it as “cheap,” “corrupt,” and “a linguistic junkyard.” Noting this response, American Heritage Publishing decided that what this country needed was a new dictionary.
The First Edition, in 1969, achieved gratifying sales. It assayed to prescribeusage, not just describe it, and it introduced a popular Usage Panel of “about 100” writers and speakers (today 200).
Unfortunately, such processes are inherently biased, as lamented by our own Lola Zook, the late STC Fellow. Lola would complain that whenever she polled STC members on “acceptable” usage, respondents viewed it as a grammar test and righteously showed off their knowledge of “the rules.”
Change Through the Years
Amazingly, however, as American Heritage (AH) published editions in 1982, 1992, and 2000, it edged away from its disagreements with Webster. Incidentally, it always included ain’t , labeled nonstandard..
Here are abridged AH opinions from 1969 and 2000. Note, though, that the devil is in the details! Please read the full Usage Notes.
Anxious for eager. Rejected by 72 percent of the Usage Panel in 1969. But in 2000 rejection slipped to 52 percent and AH acceptedanxious “as a means of adding emotional urgency,” like “I am dyingto see you.”Anyone. Takes a singular verb. “Anyone is entitled to change hismind.” (1969). By 2000 plural usage was still rejected by 82 percent, but AH argued that it was more convenient than his or his/her (SeeThey.)Data. In 1969 AH said, “In formal usage, the plural construction is more appropriate.” But in 2000, the Panel accepted singular usage in one sentence by 60 percent and in another by 72.Different than. “This book is different than that” was rejected by 89 percent in 1969 but “How different things seem now than yesterday” by only 56. (The devil is in the details. — db). In 2000 AH said the usage “is well attested in the works of reputable writers.”Due to as a preposition. “He hesitated due to fear” was rejected by 84 percent in1969. But in 2000 AH said, “Since due to is widely used and understood, there seems little reason to avoid using it as a preposition.”Finalize. Rejected by 90 percent in1969 and 71 percent in the late 80s, but only 28 percent in 1997. In 2000 AH said, “Once considered objectionable because of associations with bureaucracy, it is steadily gaining acceptance.”Hopefully for “let us hope that.” Rejected by 56 percent in 1969 and 73 percent in 1986. However, the 2000 dictionary called it “useful” and surmised that prohibiting it has become a grammatical shibboleth.None as a plural. Approved by 72 percent in 1969. No dispute in 2000.Nouns as Verbs. “The singer debuts here tonight.” Rejected by 93 percent in 1969. But in 2000 AH said, “Debut is widely used as a verb, both transitively and intransitively,” citing some exceptions.Percent. AH itself changed in 2000 from per cent in 1969.More Perfect. In1969 AH said that the comparative and superlative cannot be used when perfection is “absolute,” although maybe in cases that approach the absolute. In 2000 it quoted “a more perfect union” and evoked ideal, which can be modified without objection.Shall. In 1969 AH said that in formal usage shall is employed in first person for simple futurity and in second and third persons for determination and other intents. But the Panel approved “We will bein London next week” by 62 percent. In 2000 AH said that inAmerica people who adhere to shall rules “run the risk of sounding pretentious.”Than . In 1969 AH deemed it a conjunction, not a preposition. “He is taller than I.” But in 2000 AH disagreed, evoking than whom.Most unique. Rejected by 94 percent in 1969 and 80 percent in 2000. However, AH said, “Unique is widely used as worthy of being considered in a class by itself and thus may arguably be modified.”Very. Historically an “intensive” that should not modify a past participle directly. In 1969 the Panel rejected “We were very inconvenienced” by 80 percent but accepted “We were very discouraged” because discouraged was considered adjectival. This devilish detail was expounded on in 2000.Which in restrictive clauses. Approved by 56 percent in1969. In 2000 AH said, “The use of which with restrictive clauses is common.” (See That.).
One appeal: Please don’t accost Don Bush. I am only the dutiful messenger.