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American Heritage Dictionary

The new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary is a heavyweight one, at least physically, weighing in at more than 3kg (7lb), with 2074 large-format pages. It wears its scholarship very lightly, however, being easy to use with simple, clear definitions and informally written notes and comments. Visually, it’s delightful. Each page contains two columns of text, with up to five full-colour illustrations in the margin that relate to terms on that page. Illustrations include photographs, drawings, and maps — more than 4,000 of them. Headwords (some 200,000) are picked out in dark green.

The cover of American Heritage Dictionary

As is now common in dictionaries, entries cover famous people and important places as well as words, making the work a mini-encyclopedia as well as a dictionary. In addition, there are some 450 usage notes and about the same number of synonym entries and paragraphs on word histories. Added to these are 150 entries on regional American English terms like hosey, krumkake, luminaria, muffuletta, summercater and whiffletree. A new set of notes, “Our Living Language”, contain background information on the way social and other factors influence the way speakers shape the language.

The list of words included for the first time is uncontroversial: terms like control freak, digerati, McJob, jewel box, microcredit, nanny state and wuss are now well established; some, like e-mail, domain name, dot-com and bitmap, serve to point up the great advances in the circulation and acceptance of computer-related and Internet language that have occurred in the seven years since the last edition.

A feature of this dictionary is the employment of a usage panel to give advice; though all American and British publishers have an editorial board, only the American Heritage Dictionary polls its panel members and records their opinions in entries. Most publishers are suspicious of this approach, feeling it leads to an unrepresentative or conservative view; for example, my heart fell when I read that the panel deprecated hopefully. But it turns out that the usage note is better balanced than that simple statement suggests, correctly pointing out that dislike of the word has become a shibboleth, not shared by other sentence adverbs such as mercifully and — in effect — politely telling its usage panel it is wrong. But then, why bother recording its view? Again, on split infinitive the dictionary says it is acceptable, though care has to be taken when more than one word divides the to from the verb; however, half the usage panel hates the thought of even a single word being placed between them, a deeply conservative opinion (and one, most linguists would say, that is alien to normal usage, historical precedent, and the structure of the language). The usage panel strongly deprecates what it sees as the confusion between disinterested and uninterested; this distaste I share, whilst being aware that the shift is well under way and almost certainly unstoppable; in any case it represents a relatively modern distinction.

The CD-ROM is rather better organised than its equivalent from the previous edition (though the anagramming feature and the thesaurus are no longer included). It allows the user to search on headwords, with the search box permitting wildcards that include punctuation, like s*-, which shows all suffixes starting with s; a pattern search permits even more extensive use of this feature, with *q*w* for example turning up entries from boutique brewery to squawroot. However, there is no full-text search. Users can also find all the entries accompanied by the various kinds of supporting notes and can browse through blocks of headwords. Almost every entry has an audio pronunciation.

Appendixes to the book include notes on Indo-European and Semitic roots that will mainly be of use to language specialists. If you need this information, you will welcome the publication at the same time of the second edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, a 150-page work which greatly extends the coverage in AHD4. Information on roots has been updated from that in the first edition of 1985, many place names and personal names have been added, and a series of 26 language and cultural notes are included in a similar style to AHD4. Some 13,000 English words have their origins traced back to Indo-European sources, easily consulted using the comprehensive index at the end.

[Pickett, Joe (ed), The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, published by the Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, on 16 September 2000; ISBN 0-395-82517-2 (hardback, $60.00), ISBN 0-618-08230-1 (hardback with CD-ROM, $74.95), ISBN 0-618-09455-5 (CD-ROM only, $24.95). Watkins, Calvert (ed), The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Second Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston; ISBN 0-395-98610-0 (hardback), ISBN 0-618-08250-6; publisher’s price $18.00 in paperback.]

Page created 7 Oct. 2000

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