A new dictionary-related inquiry

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Aug 30 12:48:47 UTC 2012

Steve Kleinedler asked me to forward this response to Fred's post.

As the Executive Editor of the American Heritage Dictionaries, I must
address some of the points of this email.

The American Heritage Dictionary does not "eschew" databases. We have a
very robust citations database.

It is true we have a Usage Panel, but their input is used to help us write
usage notes for a couple hundred entries.  The lexicographical staff most
certainly does not, and could not, turn to the Usage Panel for input on
every word and edit. Between the fourth edition and the fifth edition,
there were over 10,000 new words and senses added, and there were hundreds
of thousands of edits. To imply that every change we make is run past the
Usage Panel is ludicrous.

Some Usage Notes do provide prescriptive information -- information that
users have come to expect in researching how formal language is presented.
Most, however, are balanced with information about how the word is used --
and that's where the responses of the Usage Panel are helpful. The reader
can gauge to what degree these Panelists adhere to a specific "rule."

Like our competitors, the editorial staff of the American Heritage
Dictionaries crafts definitions based on citational evidence that shows how
the word is used. The American Heritage Dictionary is NOT considered a
"prescriptive" dictionary, although, like most cases, it does provide a
small amount of prescriptive information (for instance, see the note at
irregardless). A user would want to know the story of irregardless because
if he or she were to use it in a formal situation, he or she would want to
be aware of how a good deal of the audience might react to that, depending
on the context. Our competitors do the same for these hot-button items such
as "irregardless."

Steve Kleinedler
Executive Editor
American Heritage Dictionaries

On Wed, Aug 29, 2012 at 10:15 PM, Fred Shapiro wrote:
> A legal scholar has asked me to pass on the following questions.  If anyone=
>  wants to respond, please post to the list or send a private e-mail to me a=
> t fred.shapiro at yale.edu<mailto:fred.shapiro at yale.edu>:
> "Although I struck out with my initial inquiry last May, I now have a more =
> specific inquiry that might yield something more fruitful.
> I have almost completed coding my dataset of approx. 120 Supreme Court case=
> s in which the justices since 1987 have used specific dictionaries to help =
> justify their decisions (55 criminal cases; 41 labor and employment cases; =
> 21 business and commercial cases).  In exploring some of the lexicographic =
> literature (e.g. Sidney Landau, Howard Jackson, Herbert Morton's book about=
>  Webster's Third, and the Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography) I have re=
> gularly come across a basic distinction between the descriptive and prescri=
> ptive definitional approaches.
> As you may know, Webster's Third sharpened the debate as to whether definit=
> ions should tend toward authoritative pronouncements on what a word's meani=
> ng Ought to be, or instead attempt to describe the way(s) a word is actuall=
> y used by members of a speech community. I have coded for a range of specif=
> ic dictionaries (plus a catchall category), and I wonder if there is some r=
> ecognized taxonomy on this topic. My own sense is that Webster's Third fall=
> s clearly in the descriptive camp, and I would tend to place the OED there =
> as well. Webster's Second appears more prescriptive in its approach, and th=
> e American Heritage, which seems to eschew databases and instead to rely on=
>  a panel of 200 prominent scholars, writers and others (including Justice S=
> calia!!) to help gauge acceptability, also seems prescriptive. Black's Lega=
> l Dictionary, which treats the judicial definitions from West's Words & Phr=
> ases the way general dictionaries might treat citation files or electronic =
> corpora, strikes me as more prescriptive--because judicial interpretations =
> are self-conscious efforts to decree the meaning of words rather than colle=
> cted examples of word usage.
> I am hoping that someone in your Dictionary Society cohort has views about =
> this kind of classification, or can refer me to sources that address the di=
> stinction among specific dictionaries. Apart from Justice Scalia's occasion=
> al sarcastic asides about Webster's Third, the Justices don't address the d=
> ifference (for words they "define" via dictionaries) between descriptions o=
> f usage and pronouncements about the most correct usage--but their own patt=
> erns of reliance suggest that several may have individual dictionary prefer=
> ences.
> Assuming there is some kind of prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy (or perha=
> ps a continuum?), I also am trying to assign a place to other dictionaries =
> that the Justices use with some frequency: (i) Random House; (ii) Funk & Wa=
> gnalls; (iii) Webster's Collegiate; (iv) 19th century dictionaries; (v) dic=
> tionaries of etymology (Barnhart and Oxford); (vi) other law dictionaries (=
> Ballentine's, Bouvier, Burril ); (vii)  technical dictionaries of medicine,=
>  chemistry, business, accounting, finance, economics. Thoughts from you or =
> your colleagues on any of these additional dictionaries are welcome.
> Please feel free to share this email with others who might be interested; I=
>  welcome insights from those with far more lexicographic expertise than I h=
> ave as part of my examination into how the Court is using (or misusing) dic=
> tionaries."
> Fred Shapiro
> Editor
> YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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