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  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed. ed. by Joseph Pickett and Steve Kleinedler
  • Frank Abate (bio)
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed. Joseph Pickett, Executive Editor, and Steve Kleinedler, Supervising Editor. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Pp. xxviii + 2,084. $60.00. ISBN 978-0-547-04101-8

“Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

— Samuel Johnson, Letter to Francesco Sastres (August 21, 1784)

Dr. Johnson had it right, in essence. Yet, there is a saving grace for dictionary publishers: the opportunity to prepare a revised edition. If sales of the first and subsequent editions demonstrate that there is a market that will deliver a profit, there is a strong chance that another edition will be called for. Then the staff of lexicographers, proofreaders, designers, illustrators, and managers can be maintained, with an excellent chance that the dictionary will be revised, corrected, and updated, such that it may come to go quite true.

The publisher of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language secured a solid market from the time of the first edition in 1969. That edition, edited by William Morris, was a bold departure in American lexicography. Beyond its distinctive page design and innovative use of illustrations, including hundreds of halftones of photographic images, the first edition of AHD made a strong statement that the English language in America was distinctive, and needed particular attention. AHD introduced a Usage Panel, a committee of experienced authors, editors, and scholars, offering specific advice to users on fine points of usage. The AHD Usage Panel was a direct response to what was widely regarded as the laissez faire approach of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1961), which many felt opened the floodgates, in its reporting—and thereby somehow sanctioning—of non-literary and non-formal usages, often without comment or labels.

The AHD of 1969 also included an “Appendix of Indo-European Roots,” prepared by Prof. Calvert Watkins of Harvard. The Appendix was an underpinning to the etymologies of the AHD, showing that the significant “roots” of many English words could be traced back to a proto-language, thus illustrating semantic interconnections. Based on [End Page 235] the “Comparative Method,” a development of late-19th-century and subsequent linguistic research, the AHD’s Appendix was embraced by professors and teachers, who used it as a basis for informing their students about the underpinnings of the language, in form and meaning.

A legacy of consistent, continual editing, directed by senior staff, is essential to achieving a high standard of excellence in a dictionary. Despite Dr. Johnson’s observation, an ongoing dictionary uses editorial consistency, maintained through editions, so that it can then “go true.” Errors and omissions are found and fixed. Updating, necessary for any reference work to be useful, is done by trained staff, closely familiar with the details of the dictionary text.

Fortunately, the American Heritage Dictionary has been edited and updated by experienced staff over the years, including David Jost and Joseph Pickett. Pickett, on the staff since the third edition, was Executive Editor of the fifth edition, ensuring continuity of the philosophy and style of the text of the AHD that was established in prior editions. Steve Kleinedler was Supervising Editor of the fifth edition, carrying forward his work from the fourth edition in 2000.

This continuity alone would be enough to recommend the fifth edition of AHD. There is more. AHD5 is simply a beautiful book. The dictionary text is amplified and made more appealing by its page design, supplemented by more than 4,000 illustrations, most in full color, and usefully put close by the entry they support. Anyone who performs a “flip test” on AHD5 is likely to be impressed by the sheer beauty and variety of illustration. The first page of each letter section is highlighted by a full-width illustration of that letter as it has been represented in Phoenician, Greek, and Roman texts, plus background color illustration of its applied use. This is a unique and handsome feature, one that makes browsing the...


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pp. 235-237
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