When a mighty storm fells a great tree in the forest, it creates a clearing open to the sunshine where seedlings can flourish. And that, metaphorically, is what happened in the world of dictionaries in 1961, when the third edition of Merriam-Webster’s great New International Dictionary, the Unabridged, provoked a storm of criticism because it harbored a four-letter word, and not only harbored it but declared that under some circumstances it was proper to use. The word was ain’t, and the Unabridged famously allowed that, “though disapproved by many,” it was used in the phrase “ain’t I” by “many cultivated speakers.”
That was only the worst example of abdicating authority in favor of usage. Purists who wanted to head off the collapse of civilization looked to anywhere but Springfield, Mass., the home of Merriam-Webster, for replacements that would be sufficiently rigorous about usage.
They found, in Cleveland, Webster’s New World Dictionary, a modest and reliable work first published in the 1950s. For newspapers, the Associated Press promptly chose it to supplant the Unabridged as the authority for spelling, usage, and definitions.
Meanwhile, the editors of American Heritage magazine decided the crisis was so great that it needed a brand new dictionary from scratch. The resulting American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language was co-published with Houghton Mifflin in 1969. In the words of Editor William Morris’s introduction to the first edition, “It would faithfully record our language, the duty of any lexicographer, but it would not, like so many others in these permissive times, 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 this end it had, and still has, a Usage Panel of about a hundred notables to rule on matters of contention like hopefully as a sentence adverb.
Both WNW and AHD still flourish, though the former nearly went adrift quite a few years ago when the World Publishing Company was sold and resold. Finally, two years ago, Houghton Mifflin took it on. Today Houghton Mifflin publishes both dictionaries, both under the editorship of Steve Kleinedler.
Thinking of this, I wondered how people could choose between two desk dictionaries from the same publisher and editor. So I asked Kleinedler, and here’s what he said:
“The major difference is that AHD is larger—WNW is a college dictionary, so there’s more content in the AHD. The etymological information is more thorough in AHD, especially because of the Indo-European and Semitic roots, so if etymology is of interest, that would be the way to go. Because it’s larger, there are more compound terms in the AHD as well, and there’s a more in-depth focus on medical and scientific terms. AHD is also noted for its luxurious art program.
“On the other hand WNW is AP’s dictionary of choice, so for copy editors and proofreaders, it can be more useful. Also WNW indicates which terms are Americanisms—words first coined or developed in the U.S.”
I also asked whether they are mainly online nowadays. “We emphasize both the print and the electronic. WNW 5, for example, has only been out since August and it’s already in its third printing; at the same time, it is bundled in electronically with the AP Style Guide. AHD continues to sell well, too, and the content is available both online and as an app. Some people prefer print, others electronic, and so we continue to provide both options.
“(Personally, I love to use print reference works, because you inevitably get lost in the pages looking something up, serendipitously making discoveries that you hadn’t originally intended to uncover.)”
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