October 1st, 2008 | Uncategorized


Yesterday I paid a visit to my publisher, Houghton Mifflin, in Boston, and got to meet these two guys who work on the American Heritage Dictionary. That’s Patrick John Taylor on the left, and Steven R. Kleinedler. (I think they may have had something to do with my invitation to be on the AHD Usage Panel a couple years ago.)

patrick & steven
It was terribly exciting. I felt like Milo visiting the word market in The Phantom Tollbooth. We reminisced fondly about the dictionaries we’d spent our childhoods immersed in. For me it was Webster’s. “Which edition?” Patrick and Steven chorused. I had no idea, but they were able to ascertain with a few questions that it was the Second. Steven pointed out that Webster’s Second remains a popular dictionary among conservative home schoolers, because it doesn’t have any bad words in it. Like “evolution.” (Actually, it does have “evolution,” but it’s defined at some length as merely a theory.)

Steven grew up with the Random House dictionary, and Patrick’s was the AHD itself. His boyhood hero was Calvert Watkins, who wrote all that stuff about Indo-European roots in the back. Now that’s Patrick’s job.

I learned all sorts of fascinating things, like the difference between the High School and College editions of the AHD. Here’s a comparison of page 559 in each–can you figure it out?

high school vs. college AHD
See how cleverly they add some weird words to fill up the space that’s left? In order to avoid having to re-design all the dang pages? And look, here’s a movie where Steven determines just what adjustments had to be made to avoid having a certain problematic piece of slang show up as a boldface guide word at the top of the page.

We didn’t just discuss dirty words, though. There was also some lofty talk about Old Church Slavonic, and monosemy.

As Patrick says, “‘C’ and ‘S’ are the most formidable letters.”

49 Responses to “Dictionopolis”

  1. C&S says:

    C&S Rocks! Go Alison! We love you! Formidable! Formidable!

  2. Noominal says:

    Being very visual, and raised by a teacher who told me more often than not to “look it up,” I still today crave the simple visual illustrations alongside word definitions in the dictionaries of my childhood…

    To this day, use the word arms “akimbo” and that illustration pops up in my head.

  3. Jen in California says:

    I grew up first with a tattered paperback dictionary (I think a Websters) with a green cover (sixties edition of some kind). It had all the indo-european info, abbreviations, lists of countries and capitals, and an explanation of the roman numerals system in the back. I LOVED that thing. I poured over it for hours. Even now I get a tingle every time I watch a movie and smugly announce its roman-numeraled copyright date faster than anyone else can figure it out.

    We never got rid of that old paperback, but we acquired a giant Random House illustrated dictionary in 1980. We bought a reading rack and left it open on a shelf that sat in the middle of our hall on top of the linen cabinet. It was a great dictionary, but I never remember pouring over it with such loving interest as the old one.

  4. Bookbird says:

    Well, high school students don’t need THOSE words in a dictionary; they know them already. And I’m sure they find the chemical formulae of dyes and pigments quite useful.

    My question, though, is why bother? The page still has to be reset and words shifted. Is there some requirement that high school and college dictionaries have exactly the same number of pages? If so, why not just use larger print? more white space? illustrations? (I can see ‘akimbo’ too!)

    So the creation and evolution (ooh! bad word!) of dictionaries have interesting backstories, just like the creation and evolution of words… When I was a kid I thought etymology was the coolest thing ever.

  5. Ginjoint says:

    “Akimbo”! And I thought I was the only one with that weird memory quirk. What a job, to be surrounded by words all day. Plus, these two seem like a blast to work with.

    Alison, the next time you’re out hiking, you’ll know the word for…um…the brown shit in moss, I guess.

  6. Feminista says:

    Hmm,I grew up with a copy of Merriam Websters the whole family used;most likely it was from the 40s.Sometimes my dad would define a word I asked about thusly: “From the Latin (or Greek),meaning…” Other times,my parents would say “look it up in the dictionary.” Which I did,paying attention to the word origins (fascinating stuff). I also looked up the few swear words the dictionary contained,thus acquainting myself with some choice Anglo Saxon epithets.We had a thesaurus lurking about,useful when writing school essays.

    In high school,my parents gifted me with a M W 7th Edition Collegiate(1968),which was even more fun to peruse. In the back were lists titled (don’t laugh)Common English Christian Names for women and men. Despite this title,this guide mentioned which names were Hebrew. And so I learned the meanings & origins of names such as Aaron,Esther,Eileen,and Sigrid.

    I’ve thought about getting a more contemporary dictionary,
    but can’t decide among the myriad of offerings. I agree that after 40 years (gasp)it’s time for an update.

  7. Tim Kynerd says:

    Is it OK that I got (and loved) the reference to The Phantom Tollbooth in the post title? 🙂

  8. The Cat Pimp says:

    Those guys look like a lot of fun to be with in general. I think I still have a dictionary lying around, but I am afraid of what would happen if I tried to stuff more words into my addled brain…

  9. Ian says:

    Strange. I have a Spanish-English dictionary and (I think) a German-English dictionary, but no plain English dictionary in the house. I’ve long lusted after a complete Oxford English Dictionary, especially for all that Indo-European stuff. The etymology of words and sounds is fascinating.

    The other thing I’m coveting is the paperweight in the first picture(is that what it is?) made up of individual metal letters. It reminds me of my manual typewriter. Where can I get one?

  10. Aunt Soozie says:

    I don’t really remember what that dictionary was that I often had my face in as a child … I know it had a red cloth cover and those black cut out tabs… and it was tattered even then… I think it was a Merriam Webster collegiate edition. I loved it. and I love the facial expressions on those guys!! too adorable!! what fun!!!

  11. R says:

    mine was the oxford concise dictionary, a hand me down from my brother 1982!!

  12. Laura says:

    I grew up with a 2nd edition Websters and an OED Compact Edition, mid-1970s edition. We would play games with words all the time, always running to the dictionary.

    My partner now laughs at my love of dictionaries, instead using the internet for word information. I still prefer the heft and smell of the old volumes.

  13. Jenna says:

    This was fascinating and you are so lucky to be on a dictionary panel and to have met those guys! Thanks for sharing. I love my dictionaries, too, and all my friends think I’m very odd.

    I used to work for a paper in Austin, Texas, and I recall having many a discussion with the editors about which dictionary we would use when consulting for a story going into the paper. From recollection, we used the definition of the word ‘fuck’ to be our deciding factor amongst various dictionaries. The AHD won, hands-down.

  14. Salvo says:

    This made me drool with extreme geeky excitement. How do I become a lexicographer? I long ago decided this is the perfect job for me. I should look into this.

  15. --MC says:

    I totally read that too fast — thought you said you’d gone to the offices of Dunder Mifflin ..

  16. Nels says:

    Alison, I’m curious what you thought about meeting them considering the role that dictionaries play in Fun Home, like with “lesbian” being at the top of the page and you and Joan reading the Indo-European roots in bed. Was that part of the fun for you?

  17. JimB says:

    Ian: That’s a typeball from the IBM Selectric family of typewriters. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Selectric_typewriter

  18. Daña says:

    When I was growing up, my family had an encyclopedia set called the Book of Knowledge, which came with a two-volume dictionary.

    I still can remember the two volumes without looking: “A to pocket veto” and “pockmark to zymurgy.” The pen-and-ink illustrations throughout both volumes are priceless.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Oh, sorry, I haven’t been able to stand the AHD since I looked up “vacillate” and “oscillate” and saw them used to define each other, interchangeably, with no distinction between the types of motion (see also fluctuate.) I prefer archaic or obsolete usage, if it can help me be more precise.

  20. Calyx says:

    Agh–I hate to do this, Jen in California, since I cherish you for the joy you take in the dictionary, but since I know you’re a word-freak like me, I’m betting you’d want to know this. You PORED over the dictionary for hours, not poured. This is a VERY common mistake–I’m a teacher and I see it all the time.

    As for me, I grew up with the American Heritage; now I have the OED online, and I can spend long procrastinatory dream-periods nosing around in it.

    And, as for me, I can never spell privilege or attach. 🙂

  21. just a guy says:

    Just remembering ATTACHments can be quite an achievement too. We have the American Heritage at home, about ten or fifteen years old, and it’s quite browsable tho I don’t do it that often.

    I suppose the kind of people who read dictionaries are also the kind of people who read encyclopedias. My parents bought Comptons from a door to door salesman in the 50s, and I grew up with them and learned a lot of neat stuff.

  22. annaoj says:

    Heh–I’ve known Steve since 1993, when we started graduate school together in Linguistics. He’s a fun guy.

  23. Holly says:

    Aunt Soozie, I think we had the same dictionary! I loved how the frayed red cloth was worn soft as the pages.

  24. Orange says:

    I grew up with a red American Heritage Dictionary in the house, along with the World Book Dictionary. Then I grew up and was eventually lured away from my American Heritage fondness—now I turn to the New Oxford American Dictionary (which has kick-ass explanatory front matter, plus I know the lexicographer in who was in charge of the latest edition, Erin McKean) and the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. The Random House dictionaries tend to be the ones I’m expected to use as a freelance editor, and I needed an unabridged. I also have two medical dictionaries, the Dorland’s I’m partial to and the Stedman’s my editing client considers its authority. Oh, and my kid has a children’s dictionary, the Macmillan Dictionary for Children. It is possible I have a problem. Can I stop buying dictionaries any time I want? I’m not so sure.

  25. Duncan says:

    I grew up with a M-W Collegiate Dictionary in the house; I’m not sure which edition, but it dated from the late 40s or early 50s. The Collegiate had dark blue cloth binding; eventually I tracked down a copy of the same edition, just to have it as an object. I also used it more for the supplementary material — the Biographical Dictionary, the Pronouncing Gazetteer, the Common Christian Names (that just means given names, Feminista — probably the northern European names are as pre-Christian in origin as the Hebrew names, many of which, like David, have histories that are pre-Hebrew). And the history of the alphabet on the endpapers. I still have a mild fetish for thin-paper books like that. I also have a paperback copy of the Tenth Edition of the Webster’s Collegiate.

    I never heard of the controversy over the Third Edition of the Webster’s Unabridged until fairly recently. A man named Bergen Evans wrote a very funny article, showing that the same reactionaries who denounced the Third Edition could hardly write a sentence without using words or definitions that weren’t legit according to their hallowed Second edition.

  26. Jana C.H. says:

    I bought a Second Edition Webster’s Collegiate dictionary at the beginning of my sophomore year in college (fall of ’73), and I still have and use it. I also have the Shorter OED, which is not like having the whole thing but it’ll do. I first discovered the complete OED in 1977 at the law library in Olympia, Washington, where I was a legislative intern. I wasn’t much of an intern, but I had a great time in the various libraries, and I did a lot of sketching at committee meetings. That was when I learned to draw hair, since my best view was usually the back of someone’s head.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Arthur Pinero: Where there is tea, there is hope.

  27. Kate L says:

    Ah, but does your dictionary define the word “frak”????

    “What the frak???”
    – Lt. Kara Thrace, BattleStar Galactica

  28. Mame says:

    or it’s New Jersey counterpart…”frick” as in “Did anyone frickin’ understand the last episode of the frickin’ Sopranos?”

  29. Mame says:

    oops…. I meant “its,” not “it’s”…I know that in this company, I would be corrected in a flash.

  30. Kate L says:

    That’s alright (allright sp?), Mame 🙂 The only reason I remember things like that is because an overactive English teaching team in my high school drilled it into our heads. And, recently a fellow faculty member had to inform me that the word “maybe” is NOT spelled “mabey” as I had thought. But shouldn’t it be?

  31. NickelJoey says:

    At my house, we had the whole World Book Encyclopedia, 1974 edition, and the accompanying two-volume dictionary. Two volumes! Wonderfully heavy, divided into A-M and N-Z, I think (does anyone remember?).

    The set was off-white with a chocolatey brown stripe on the spines, and it filled the bottom shelf of a bookcase made by my grandfather, which is now in my house. And did anyone else have the World Book “Childcraft” series — including the Childcraft Annuals? The 1978 edition was called Mathemagic, which is where I read an abridged version of the Phantom Tollbooth, over and over and over. I think of the Humbug every time I hear the word “seventeen.”

    Then, in my early teens, I learned about the mechanics of sex from the encyclopedia: the R and S-Sn volumes (s.v. “Reproduction” and “Sex”). I was too smart — and too sheltered — for my own good.

    I miss those books. And I miss the red clothbound cover of my MW 9th. (Sigh.)

  32. Jen in California says:

    Dear Calyx, no apologies necessary for gentle correction on the Poured/Pored issue. You are totally right of course.

    Just a spaced out mistake on my part. I have a deep fondness for Calyx and her ilk, who find such mistakes unsettling. I feel the same way, but I have a terrible terrible lack of head for details. I am the world’s worst editor. I have tons of respect for those that can see those details, I just kind of gloss over. I’m also bad at those “find the 10 differences puzzles” 🙂

    Just a quick shout out to all those professing love for the OED. It was 10 years between the first OED that I ever saw and my acquisition of one. It was a beautiful dream for many years: “if only I could afford an OED”. Its like childhood again, I spend hours jumping back and forth from one word to another.

    And Laura, who commented that she preferred the heft and smell of her dictionaries to looking up on line, I agree wholeheartedly. I have a private habit when picking up any book older than 1965 of smelling it before reading. There is a lot of variation “musty paperback”, “softened hardcover”, “sweet-smelling glossy pages”. It needs its own fragrance line.

  33. Maggie Jochild says:

    As a writer, I’m partial to thesaurii (not gonna look up that spelling, if it’s wrong I know someone here will inform me). The difference between my large hardback Roget’s here on the shelf above my PC and the online version is exponential, literally. So, if it’s an e-mail, I’ll settle for my quick online link. But if it’s “real” writing, I put on my glasses and read for the paper version.

  34. Angel says:

    I had a Funk & Wagnalls. And since I grew up on Laugh In re-runs, it made me giggle every time I used it. Does anyone know if there’s a reason that they chose that particular dictionary for catch phrase infamy?

  35. Angel says:

    I mean besides the obvious… 🙂

  36. Mame says:

    probably just the obvious….

  37. June says:

    True dictionary nerds not only have favorite dictionaries but also favorite pages. My favorite page of my place of employment’s official dictionary is the one that opens up to the header words (I’m not sure if that’s the official term–I mean the words pulled out to the side–in the example you show above that would be “frumpish/fugu”) hard-ass and Hare Krishna.

    (I’m miles away from said dictionary now and can’t confirm that hard-ass is hyphenated, which is driving me loopy.)

  38. Dana D says:

    What I loved most about the dictionary in my house when I was little were the labelled line drawings. It was (and is still) always surprising to me which words on a page were granted the distinction of being illustrated. Sometimes there would be an illustration of something obvious, like a “hammer (n.)”, but occasionally, a drawing would actually help me understand a word’s meaning. I’d love to see all of these again in one place…

  39. Donna says:

    Nice boyhood hero: “Calvert Watkins, who wrote all that stuff about Indo-European roots in the back.” So he idolized a linguist when he was a child? Goodness, I can barely understand the replies from those genius linguist types on the grammar boards. (I am always shocked how many brilliant linguistic wizards are willing to take their time to answer my–and others’–questions that are, truth be told, pretty dippy. Every once in a while I look at a thread that they are all jumping in on and am quickly–like within the first five words–reminded that I’ll never ever in a million years be able to understand the English language down to the microscopic level the way they do.) Maybe your AHD buds are part of that group of linguistic wizards who roam the grammar message boards answering questions from the English-befuddled.

  40. Ian says:

    @ JimB: thanks for telling me that. I’m really impressed you knew! I never used a typewriter that used a rotating ball thingummybob (this is why I need a dictionary). I can’t remember the technical term, but I always used one that had a fan of letters fixed in place.

  41. April says:

    I always loved our ginormous Macquarie Dictionary with matching lime-green thesaurus, in which the sex words section was under reference number 666, no kidding.

    Etymology is my mostest favouritest thing, now as ever. Those guys have my dream job.

  42. Cyndy says:

    Webster’s New World, Second College Edition. I will never part with it — selected and bought it myself in 1977 with my twelfth birthday check from Grandma. It was the first book in whose margins or endpapers I dared to write (mostly to note memorable words my geeky friends and I joked about).

  43. an australian in london says:

    April – I loved my matching Macquarie Dictionary and Thesaurus too!!! I’ve had the dark green dictionary since primary school, and acquired the thesaurus in secondary. For those not in the know, Macquarie’s an Australian University. But I miss them! I’ve bought two excellent German-English dictionaries since moving to London, but I often feel somewhat disempowered (the computer’s spellchecker don’t recognise that ‘un!) and deflated when I want to look up an english word and remember that I HAVE NO ENGLISH DICTONARY!!! I always took it for granted as a kid. I wonder how many times I checked these volumes growing up, and what a difference it made to my education and literacy compared to kids who don’t have one. I’m liking the sound of OED online… must check that out.

  44. pd says:

    My choice was the micrographic OED, with the magnifying glass. Love those citations in Old English.

  45. lh says:

    I grew up with The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, with the alphabet embossed on the cover. My mom’s maiden name is written inside, which always made me feel connected to her younger self.

    The first dictionary I bought for myself was the 1996 Oxford Dictionary & Thesaurus. I checked to make sure it listed cunnilingus before I bought it.

    Oh, wait. Before that there was a teacher who req’d us to bring a dictionary to class. I bought the same paperback that everyone else did. I can only remember that it was dark blue. Since I was forced to get it for a class I don’t think I ever used it voluntarily. That brings to mind the reason I’ve always avoided English classes: books are ruined forever for me the moment they’re assigned.

  46. Anonymous says:

    What facinates me most is not the “F word”, but the word “Fuddyduddy”. My pals would not blink an eye at the “f-Word”, but they would laugh hard and long if I used “fuddyduddy”. Do people feel if they take out this word, teens won’t use it? parhaps they wouldn’t know its meaning because the dictionary won’t tell them?

  47. […] to Dictionary Land Posted by acilius under Language | Tags: etymology |   Alison Bechdel describes her recent visit to the office where they put The American Heritage College Dictionary together. […]

  48. Andy says:

    Small world. Steve and I went to college together.

  49. butchysmurf says:

    Thank goodness Kate L. pays attention to the use of the word “frak” by crewmembers of Battlestar Galactica. Perhaps we should research its etymology; I keep hoping for Laura Roslin or Six to ask others not to use such language.

    Maybe the next edition of the OED will also contain the word “Cylon.”