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  • Usage in Dictionaries:An Introduction
  • Edward Finegan

To this day, "usage" and its treatment in American dictionaries have been influenced, if sometimes only slightly, by the hullabaloo surrounding publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary as long ago as 1961. The character of the dictionary's lexicography and the complex reasons underlying the criticism heaped on it are described, among other sources, in two books detailing the story. Here, two observations must suffice to capture the tone of the Third's reception. The first is simply that, in its subtitle, one of the books calls the Third a "controversial dictionary" (Morton 1994), while the other's subtitle judges it "the most controversial dictionary ever published" (Skinner 2012). The second observation is that the most extraordinary response to the Third's publication was the attempt by another publisher to take control of the G. & C. Merriam Company, suppress the Third, and move ahead on production of a "fourth" edition that would satisfy the expectations of Merriam's would-be new owners. Instead, in the end, the American Heritage Publishing Company teamed up with Houghton Mifflin to produce a competing dictionary, embracing and exhibiting a different philosophy of usage.

The focus of much, perhaps most, of the ire directed at the Third was its treatment of "usage"—its description of what appeared in the several million citations in Merriam's files—which was deemed to be insufficiently judgmental. The critical response made clear that more than [End Page 55] a few influential writers and publishers regarded it as a dictionary's responsibility not only to report usage but to judge it. In 1969, when the competing dictionary was published, its editor, William Morris, described his dictionary this way, implicitly contrasting its philosophy with that of the Third:

It would faithfully record our language … but it would not … 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 dictionary. … To furnish the guidance which we believe to be an essential responsibility of a good dictionary, we have frequently employed usage-context indicators such as "slang," "nonstandard," or "regional."

(Morris 1969, vi–vii)

Restoring some usage labels and deploying them in The American Heritage Dictionary more frequently than the Third deployed them may not have stirred the pot much. But something else in the 1969 competitor did, for in order to furnish that "essential dimension of guidance," American Heritage instituted a highly unusual, even irregular, practice in lexicography. Here's the editor again:

we asked a panel of 100 outstanding speakers and writers a wide range of questions about how the language is used today, especially with regard to dubious or controversial locutions. After careful tabulation and analysis of their replies, we have prepared several hundred usage notes to guide readers to effectiveness in speech and writing.

(Morris 1969, vii)

There has been a good deal of critical description and evaluation of the original and subsequent panels and usage notes in successive editions of the dictionary (see, e.g., Creswell 1975, Adams 2015). My focus lies elsewhere: it is in what Morris wrote next:

As a consequence [of relying on the panel for judgments], this Dictionary can claim to be more precisely descriptive, in terms of current usage levels, than any heretofore published—especially in offering the reader the lexical opinions of a large group of highly sophisticated fellow citizens.

(Morris 1969, vii) [End Page 56]

In that statement, American Heritage broadened the traditional understanding of "descriptive" to encompass opinions held by "sophisticated fellow citizens" about specific locutions, not—as had generally been the case in dictionaries—descriptions of actual usage: what people in fact wrote and said. At best, then, Morris's view blurred the distinction between descriptive lexicography (which he endorsed) and prescriptive lexicography (which went unmentioned).

When I organized a seminar on usage in dictionaries and handbooks in the spring of 2019, I sought to avoid a focus on the Third and its fallout. I invited seminar papers mostly from scholars and lexicographers in countries whose political and lexicographical histories differ from those of the US. Here, in this forum, the papers initially presented...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 55-60
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-14
Open Access
No
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