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, www.merriam-webster.com, 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.