On Dictionary Day, a tribute to books that offer the last word on language

In 2010 Little, Brown published my book The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English. The New York Times Book Review declared “This is a grammar for the 21st century – a little more earthy, a little more relaxed.” That good notice was written by Ammon Shea, the author of several books on lexicography, including Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.

The OED is short for the Oxford English Dictionary, and, someday, I want to love my children as much as Ammon Shea loves dictionaries. I have wondered whether his affection for my book was influenced by a good first impression, that the first of the 50 chapters in my book was titled, “Read dictionaries for fun and learning.”

In any case, in honor of National Dictionary Day (the birth date of Noah Webster), we bring you a condensed version of my chapter.

* * *

To live inside the language, I need the help of my two favorite dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) and the American Heritage Dictionary (or AHD). These two lexicons keep the history of our language at my fingertips, with the OED showing me where English has been and the AHD where it’s headed.

It was from the OED that I first learned, to my shock and delight, that the words grammar and glamour were related. [In the 15th century, they were both connected to the language of magic.] It was 1971 when a professor sent us on a language scavenger hunt so we could get our hands on that 12-volume “dictionary based upon historical principles.” This means that along with spellings, definitions, pronunciations, and parts of speech, the OED — thanks to the work of thousands of volunteers over 70 years — provides the word hunter with 1,827,306 examples of how and when the words came to be used in the English language, according to Simon Winchester, author of The Meaning of Everything.

So what? So let’s say the president of the United States uses the word “crusade” to build support for an American war against fanatics in the Middle East. You hear this or read it and have a gut feeling that it is not a wise word for the president to use, but you are not sure why. You decide to write about it, but first things first. As my mentor Don Fry would command: “Look it up in the OED!”

Here’s what you would find: The earliest known use of the word crusade in English appears in a historical chronicle dated 1577 and refers to the holy wars waged by European Christians in the Middle Ages “to recover the Holy Land from the Mohammedans.” Thirty years later, the word expands to define “any war instigated and blessed by the Church.” By 1786 the word is being used even more broadly to describe any “aggressive movement or enterprise against some public evil.” As luck would have it, the historical citation is expressed by a president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who encouraged a correspondent to “Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance.”

Move forward in history to the 43rd president, George W. Bush, who promises a “crusade” against fanatics who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Those terrorists happened to be Islamic extremists waging their own jihad, or holy war, against American and European forces they call “the crusaders.” With this new knowledge, perhaps you will justify the president’s use of crusade by citing Jefferson’s secular example. Or perhaps you will cite the perils, as I did, of unintentionally evoking a dangerous historical precedent marked with a cross, the symbol of the crusaders.

A quarter hour of such language research lays a foundation on which to build an argument.

From glamour to grammar, from crusade to crusado, the OED can serve you as a time machine of language, not merely to satisfy nostalgic curiosity or a narrow intellectual interest but to set you down in the history of your language, providing valuable context, to assist you in your contemporary pursuit of meaning.

* * *

I confess intolerance for dichotomous thinking. When it comes to red-state versus blue-state politics, I’m a little bit purple. When the phonics reading zealots wage war against the “whole language” hordes, I stand on the 50-yard line and shake my head. In a country versus rock debate, call me rockabilly. My favorite ice cream? Neapolitan. And when antagonists of descriptive and prescriptive grammar stand nose to nose, I grab the American Heritage Dictionary and hug it like a blanket.

The AHD offers a pragmatic reconciliation between “you must” and “you can,” thanks to a feature called the Usage Panel, a group of 200 (originally 100) professional users of language who are consulted to discover their language opinions, which, of course, change over time. In simple terms, the editors of the AHD poll the panel to get a sense of its preferences. Writers can then make informed judgments when choosing one word or phrase over another.

The popular, self-proclaimed “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty points out in The Grammar Devotional that the publisher of the AHD, James Parton, created his new dictionary because he so loathed what he considered the permissive changes in Webster’s Third. “Yes,” writes Fogarty, “the American Heritage Dictionary and its usage panel exist because of passions over perceived intolerable faults in Webster’s Third.”

… Let’s look at one of the battleground words for describers and prescribers: hopefully. No one objects to the word when it is used as a standard adverb modifying a verb: “He marched hopefully across the stage to receive his diploma.” The intended meaning is “He marched with hope.” But hopefully is now more often used as something called a sentence adverb. An anxious parent might say, “Hopefully, he marched across the stage …” meaning “I hope he marched across the stage.” Given that possibility, the listener may experience an unintended ambiguity. We can’t tell whether the student or the parent had the hope.

So should you ever use hopefully as a sentence adverb? Not according to a majority of the Usage Panel: “It might have been expected … that the initial flurry of objections to hopefully would have subsided once the usage became well established. Instead, critics appear to have become more adamant in their opposition. In the 1969 Usage Panel survey, 44 percent of the Panel approved the usage, but this dropped to 27 percent in our 1986 survey.” On the other hand, 60 percent of that 1986 panel approved the use of mercifully as a sentence adverb in “Mercifully, the game ended before Notre Dame could add another touchdown to the lopsided score.” If I am to be guided by the Usage Panel, I find mercifully in play, but hopefully out.

… Who knew you could vote on grammar and usage? But that is exactly now the Usage Panel reaches a decision, a liberating process that makes transparent the quirky human path to conventional usage.

So, by all means, read dictionaries for fun and learning.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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