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New dictionary records a day in the life of American English

FROM time to time, as he talks nonstop and eats selectively, a worried look passes over Stuart Flexner's face - as though he suddenly remembered a mistake buried somewhere in the 2,500 densely packed pages of the new Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition Unabridged. Mr. Flexner has a right to seem a trifle preoccupied.

He has just overseen a labor of nine years that must have seemed like the building of a pyramid in ancient times: the revising of an unabridged dictionary. His work, and that of 30 editors at Random House, represents the most significant event in lexicography since the publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, in 1961. Even in the more general world of trade publishing, it registers an appreciable seismographic reading.

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Unabridged dictionaries come along only every 25 years or so (although the cycles have been getting shorter), and the best ones represent a fresh opportunity to take a comprehensive look at the language and what lexicographers are thinking about it.

Early indications are that ``RHII'' opens up the whole, wide sweep of American English.

Elegantly appointed and generously illustrated, the book also represents a major new scholarly achievement. Language maven William Safire called it ``Flexner's superb new second edition'' in a recent column. Lexicographers like Allen Walker Read, now retired from Columbia University, will immediately dive into the A-Z matter looking for signals of the work's basic philosophical bent. ``Does it attempt to be authoritarian?'' the respected scholar, who worked on the American College Dictionary, asks. ``Does it command the reader or simply inform him?''

Mr. Read recalls in these questions the controversy that surrounded Webster's Third in 1961, an event he thinks worthy of ``a major sociological study.'' The Third and its editor, Philip Gove, were attacked for a permissive attitude toward slang, obscenity, and language usage standards. But the Third ushered in an era of dictionarymaking that will likely be with us a long time; and the RHII stands squarely in that tradition.

``That whole prescriptive versus descriptive thing of the '60s was something created by the media,'' Flexner says during a luncheon interview in a New York restaurant. ``No serious lexicographer faulted Webster III.'' Nor are serious lexicographers likely to find much backing off in Flexner's new oeuvre.

``This is the record. Not the censored record,'' he says emphatically. ``This is what the language is. We are offering a mirror of the language.'' If the language includes four-letter words and casual usages, then RHII includes them also, along with ``usage labels warning the unsuspecting. We tell them, `Hey, this word is vulgar. It's part of the language. Maybe you don't want to use it, but it's there.'''

``These are words that people have laughed over and cried over,'' Flexner says energetically. ``You are working with words; but you are also working with the people who use them. Trying to understand what is in their hearts and minds. What I wanted this book to be is a day in the life of the American language - including all the days that went before.''

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Flexner spent a long time getting ready to capture this day-in-the-life portrait. He began his academic career as a poet, but he took some lexicography courses along the way and ``got hooked,'' he says.

Working on a tremendously long-exposure snapshot of American English was, he says, ``like having a hot line to the language.'' The kind of thing in which somebody would come in and say that in last night's football game the tight end had made a maneuver that was described with a new term. Watching for such changes, almost imperceptible, in the language takes what he calls ``a love of minutiae.'' The experience gave Flexner an immersion in English - as she is spoken - in these United States, an experience that left him not depressed but cheered.

The language is ``alive and well. Growing and changing, as it always has,'' he says cheerfully, noting that the age of videospeak turns out to be a time of close attention to the spoken and written word. Evidence can be found, he points out, in ``the fact that so many people question the language, spelling and usage,'' and in the popularity of books and columns on language. ``It's only relatively recent that so many people are concerned with usage.'' The word on the RHII is that it will feed this interest well.

``The usage notes are excellent,'' William Safire, who writes the ``On Language'' column for the New York Times, commented, returning a reporter's phone call, while on a business trip. ``I'm talking to you from a pay phone, so I don't have a copy in front of me. But I can tell you that it's a good piece of work with excellent front matter. Its strong points are its understanding of Americanisms and its completeness now.''

This completeness comes from an elaborate system of using more than 400 consultants to identify the current terms for the specializations that steadily change the language. It also comes from access to the compilers' files for the Dictionary of American Regional English, as well as from original etymological research.

Flexner boasts that the RHII contains ``85,000 changes of fact,'' from a slight change in the speed of sound to new discoveries about the rings around planets.

This kind of minutiae makes a really good unabridged into the special warehouse of miscellany and vital matter that this one appears to be - a place where the curious and the educated may go for answers of fact, nuances of meaning, and a history of the language.

Finishing his lunch, Flexner sits back, pondering a question about the thing that characterizes an unabridged. In an unabridged, he says, you can put a semicolon at the end of a definition and go on to explain that something happened to change a word or an idea.

This fat, new book - a work of praise to and scholarship about the words we live by - invites one to reach the semicolon and go right on reading.

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