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Infatuated with a book

I have never before thought of a dictionary as gorgeous.

But the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is coming out (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2,112 pages, $60). It weighs more than eight pounds, and it is a beauty.

All the pages are in color, with copious illustrations, and the headwords are printed in a blue sans serif type that makes them easy to identify. The entries are in a small but highly legible serif type.

This edition has added 10,000 words and senses, and the supplemental material, including a sensible essay on usage by Steven Pinker and an extensive appendix on Indo-European languages and roots, impresses.

There is also exceptionally useful explanatory matter within the dictionary. For example, the entry on hooker gives the lie to the folk etymology that the Union’s Major General Joseph Hooker gave his name to prostitutes, the sense appearing in texts that antedate the Civil War. There’s a note to hoosegow, a classic American slang term for a jail, with an explanation of its origins in Spanish and its distant links to the Latin word that also gives us judge.

 Since one of the distinctive features of the American Heritage is its employment of a panel of experts, now numbering 200, to advise on usage, I want to illustrate the consequences of that by quoting the usage note on hopefully in full:

“When used as a sentence adverb (as in Hopefully the measures will be adopted), hopefully has been roundly criticized since the 1960s, when it saw a sudden increase in use, for being potentially ambiguous and lacking a clear point of view. It is not easy to explain why people selected this word for disparagement. Its use can be justified by the similar use of many other adverbs, such as mercifully and frankly: Mercifully, the play was brief. Frankly, the food at that restaurant is terrible. And though this use of hopefully may have been a vogue word back in the 1960s, it has long since lost any hint of jargon or pretentiousness for the general reader. In fact, its widespread use reflects popular recognition of its usefulness; there is no precise substitute. Someone who says Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified makes a hopeful prediction about the fate of the treaty, whereas someone who says I hope (or We hope or It is hoped that) the treaty will be ratified expresses a bald statement about what is desired. Only the later could be concluded with a clause such as but it isn’t likely.

"People often warm to a usage once novelty fades and it becomes well established. But not so with hopefully. Opposition continues to run high or even higher to this usage than it did in the 1960s. In our 1968 survey, 44 percent of the Usage Panel approved the usage. This dropped to 27 percent in our 1986 survey. We asked the question again in 1999, and 34 percent accepted the sentence Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified, while only 22 percent accepted the adverb when placed at the end of a sentence in the example The new product will be shipped by Christmas, hopefully. It would seem, then, that it is not the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb per se that bothers the Panel, since the comparable use of mercifully is acceptable to a large majority. Rather, hopefully seems to have taken on a life of its own as a sign that the writer is unaware of the canons of usage.”

So the American Heritage lexicographers, bless their hearts, survey the usage experts and then, instead of following them slavishly, form sensible independent judgments. May their tribe increase.

I go back to how beautiful this book is, as well as how thorough and informative. And I think that, no matter how handy electronic resources are, no one thinks of a website as a beautiful artifact.* (No one but a website designer.) I am a member of the receding generations for whom the printed book, particularly when it is executed ably and gracefully, is a sacred object, palpable learning that can be held in the hand. This is one such volume.


*Don’t be cross,, I use your site regularly. I love your site. You too are doing the Lord’s work. OED, if I could afford you online, I would be at your feet as well. But this book is just gorgeous.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:51 AM | | Comments (13)


I find it interesting phenomenon how disapproval of certain usage items crystallizes for no apparent reason. As the AHD and others note, there's absolutely nothing inherently wrong with "hopefully", but somehow those sensible evaluations fail to prevent it from being added to the canon of shibboleths. Of course, it doesn't help when even those who say it's not wrong tell you not to use it anyway:

Jonathon brings up one of the usage questions I find most interesting: At what point does caution become appeasement? It's one thing to avoid all stupid shibboleths in writing (say) to ask a stranger for a job, but if you never challenge the incorrections of teachers, editors, etc., then, as Arnold Zwicky put it, the crazies win.

(PS: Steven Pinker, not Stephen.)

There appears to be a new index for word roots in Semitic languages (besides the excellent PIE roots section), which may be useful for keeping track of Arab and Hebrew words. Though I'm most interested in how much Watkins' PIE dictionary got updated, and whether it'll ever be put back online, the way it used to be.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language was the very first adult dictionary I've owned. That copy was given to me on a momentous occasion many (many!) years ago by some very kind teachers along with both a Thesaurus and a Biographical Dictionary.

This $60 will get spent.
Thanks for the recommendation

I can't wait to get my copy!

My aunt gave me a copy of the original AHD when I was a freshman in high school. I loved it. There was just so much interesting stuff in it. I've never been able to look up just a single word. That word would lead me to another, then another, then a picture would catch my eye, then an Indo-European root, then a Usage Note. Twenty to 30 minutes was (and still is) an average AHD perusal time for me. Since then I've very properly laid in each new edition. So it will be with this one. I'll use the CD, but the batteries in the printed volume last so much longer.


I loved that last bit of your post, i.e., "...... but the batteries in the printed volume last so much longer." Quite a prescient backhand reflexion of the times, and how we will be engaging the vast realm of print in the future.

In this 21st century high tech era of Kindles, Nooks and iPads, our book reading options have expanded exponentially, and yet I still see myself as a bit of a troglodyte in this regard. (No Kindles, or Nooks for this dude........ yet.)

I must confess I still get great visceral, and a unique psychic satisfaction from fumbling w/ a balky dust jacket wrapped around a real 'live' book, while taking in that distinctive new-book fragrance, and experiencing the subtle, yet futile resistance of the book spine, on its very first opening. (As you pointed out, Kem, definitely saves on batteries, as well. HA!)

Kem, sounds like The American Heritage Dictionary offers one a similarly engaging 'experience' to our ofttimes rambling explorations over the vast Wikipedia info-scape? There's just no way that one can simply peruse a single article on Wiki without invariably clicking on all those tempting highlighted-in-blue key words peppered throughout each-and- every posted article.

An hour, or so, later, after following myriad Wiki tangents, one stops to ponder, 'Hmm......what the heck was I even looking up in the first place? Doh!'

Prof. McI. definitely piqued my interest w/ his glowingly effusive recommendation/ positive critique of this most recent version of the AHD. Sounds completely irresistible to any bona fide word freak, no?

Alas, i may have to postpone my AHD gratification for now, if I ultimately decide to pay that new $49.00/ half-year Sun subscription fee, just to basically stay on as an active participant on this blog.

Decision$!..... Decision$!


I have a tome. It is so heavy that it has its own stand in my study. It is entitled "Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged Second Edition". The copyright dates in the book run from 1904 to 1966. Does this object have any value other than as a decent reference book. Many of today's popular words are not in it. What sayest thou?

The Semitic root index was already present in the fourth edition.

John, I didn't mean to show up as Anonymous in comment #2. I don't know why that happened. Though I did get a prompt telling me to register with the Sun (which , annoyingly, I couldn't do under my current name -- maybe that's why it made me Anon?).

As to the wonderful online OED, all you have to do is buy a property in the UK (I have a shed available at a very reasonable price), join at no charge the local public library (move fast while there's still one in existence), and OED is available online free. Why doesn't that rabid marxist B Obama do something like that in the American Socialist People's Republic?

PS: Your Captcha appears to have entered the world of real alphabets. Well done!

The Amerian Heritage College Dictionary is my dictionary of choice (I find myself drawn into it much as Kem described above). The third edition is on my bookshelf, and its excellent essay "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans" by Dr. Calvert Watkins did more to help me understand etymology (proto Indo-European or otherwise) than anything else I've ever read.

I had a question once on a PIE root and the AHCD's Indo-European Roots appendix did not have a clear answer. So I called Harvard and asked for Dr. Watkins's office. He answered the phone and said he was in a meeting with a student. When I explained that I was a gushing fan and wanted to pick his brain, he excused his student, took my call at length and answered my question.

What a gracious man. Any publication that associates itself with the likes of him must be worthwhile. I look on the AHCD as an old friend or a kind of club I can retire to for quiet and comfort, rest and restoration, like you read about in older British novels. And it's people like Dr. Watkins that have made it so.


As a parting gift (but not a Parthian shot) I'll just mention that the three main dictionaries of American English are all freely available online:

Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary (3rd ed.) at

American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., searchable, but without the IE and Semitic roots):

American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., not searchable, but with Watkins's essay and the roots):

Random House Dictionary (2nd ed.):

Bev: Anyone can call a dictionary "Webster's", as the term is in the public domain in the U.S., like Roget and Hoyle. Merriam-Webster is the corporate descendant of Noah Webster's original company, but they don't own the rights to the name.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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