THE NEW AHD: A PODCAST.

Via Dave Wilton at Wordorigins comes Is the Print Dictionary Doomed?, the inaugural podcast in Slate’s new “The Afterword” series, in which June Thomas interviews Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, about the new fifth edition. It’s under twenty minutes long (18:43, to be exact) and has all sorts of interesting stuff: new inclusions like asshat, eggcorn, and presenteeism; entries omitted to make room for them, like cassette memory; a paean to etymology, with enticing remarks like “Some of the etymologies are truly expansive”; and the fact that there is a doctor on staff to make the call about which new words for medical procedures should go into the book.
In other dictionary words, I was pleased to learn that the OHD has added the entry bibimbap; not only is it a tasty dish, the word is a joy to utter.

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    New word for me: pigwidgeon, which is the translation of a new French word for me: coquecigrüe. Google translate garbles syntax terrible but is sometimes good on vocabulary items.
    (Alternatively, pigwidgeon isn’t the translation of coquecigrüe, and Google translate allowed some saboteur to add it.

  2. I’m somewhat dismayed that a word like asshat, the limited meaning of which is self-evident, has made it into this dictionary, while at first baffling slang which has wide currency in hip hop and youth culture, and has for more than ten years, is almost wholly missing. Also, while I’m nitpicking, douche is defined as “a foolish or contemptible person,” which seems wrong to me. To me a douche is someone who goes out of their way or derives pleasure from being a jerk to someone.
    Some examples of words I wish were in the dictionary: steez, swag, in the cut, cutty, lacing (to deck out in fancy clothes or accessories), thizz, flossing, cream, gwop, beezy, bleezy, breezy, biting, 5-O, baller, bougie, hooptie, shorty, politricks, politicking (defined incorrectly, at least according to my experience, by the AHD), skeet, skrilla, whip, cess, ish, po-po, treal (trill), etc. To be fair, some of them are in the OED. But even the OED seems overly wary of these words, even though they are all real words, well attested in song lyrics, used in everyday life by real people, and have a lot more catch then some ish like presenteeism.

  3. Joe, I never heard of “asshat” until just now, and I had to look it up. I don’t think they should leave a word out of the dictionary just because someone think s people ought to be able to guess what it means.
    Maybe “douche” has several overlapping senses. Like “jerk”: To me a jerk is someone who goes out of their way or derives pleasure from being a, well, let’s say a douche, to someone. But it can also mean something like a loser.
    What does “a lot more catch” mean”?

  4. Yes, but to me a jerk can also be someone whose self-centeredness causes them to be oblivious of other’s wants and needs. Douches really need to be aware of what they’re doing.
    “A lot of catch” just means catchy.
    And I see that American Heritage was apparently founded to be less permissive than Webster’s Third. Its name makes it sound like an authority, a dictionary committed to recording all of American English’s developments. So I care a lot less what its up to. Although “asshat” still surprises me. My point was just that I wish words from a culture I care a lot about were afforded the same respect as political and journalistic neologisms.

  5. But not just catchy, also that they are used a lot because they fit more situations.

  6. What does bougie mean, apart from “candle” in French, please ?>

  7. Some examples of words I wish were in the dictionary: steez, swag, in the cut, cutty, lacing (to deck out in fancy clothes or accessories), thizz, flossing, cream, gwop, beezy, bleezy, breezy, biting, 5-O, baller, bougie, hooptie, shorty, politricks, politicking (defined incorrectly, at least according to my experience, by the AHD), skeet, skrilla, whip, cess, ish, po-po, treal (trill), etc.
    But almost none of these words will be around, or even remembered, in ten years, which is why there’s no point including them, especially in this age of Urban Dictionary. The dictionary makers are not looking down their nose at these words or denying them their existential value; they are making a judgment as to what will stick around long enough for it to make sense to include them in a print dictionary that they want to stay reasonably current for a decade or so. All the lexicographers I know love slang.
    And I see that American Heritage was apparently founded to be less permissive than Webster’s Third.
    That was decades ago (before you were born, I’m guessing); to hold that against its current incarnation would be as silly as to hold someone’s adolescent angst against them when they’re all grown up. (I might add that the AHD has changed hands twice since those early days.) The AHD is a superb dictionary, and its Indo-European and Semitic appendices are invaluable; if you choose to ignore it because it doesn’t have your favorite ephemeral slang terms, it’s your loss. That’s not what it’s for.

  8. What does bougie mean, apart from “candle” in French, please ?
    It’s a contemptuous abbreviation for “bourgeois.” (I would have thought it was past its sell-by date, but it would seem people are still using it, or at least Joe R is.)

  9. “But almost none of these words will be around, or even remembered, in ten years, which is why there’s no point including them, especially in this age of Urban Dictionary.”
    Most of these words have already been around for ten years, and I suspect most of them will last a while yet. And anyone who has used urban dictionary knows that the definitions, even when correct, are rarely any good and tend not to include any of the etymological or usage notes that would be in a proper dictionary. Anyway, if I suspect most peoples hostility towards such slang comes from an aversion towards the culture more than anything else, I will allow that ignorance is equally possible.

  10. I don’t think they should leave a word out of the dictionary just because someone thinks people ought to be able to guess what it means.
    I love this idea. There are lots of words where they could write Guess instead of a definition, or even better Just fucking guess. It might save more than half of the current pages.
    Bougie isn’t one of these words. Here’s the OED entry for Bougie:
    (buʒi)
    [a. F. bougie wax candle, from Bougie (Arab. Bijiyah), a town in Algeria which carried on a trade in wax.]
    1. A wax-candle, a wax-light.
       1755 Mem. Capt. P. Drake II. ii. 40 Supplied with‥Bougies, otherwise Wax-lights, for their own Apartments.    1817 M. Edgeworth Tales & Novels (Rtldg.) IX. xii. 109 Snatching up a bougie, the wick of which scattered fire behind him, he left the room.    c 1865 Letheby in Circ. Sc. I. 97/1 Stearic candles will supersede every other description of bougie.
    2. Med. A thin flexible surgical instrument made of waxed linen, india-rubber, metal, etc., for introduction into the passages of the body, for the purpose of exploration, dilatation, or medication.
       An armed or caustic bougie has a piece of caustic fixed within its extremity.
       1754–64 Smellie Midwif.* III. 513 He introduced a large bougie which went up a great way.    1758 J. S. tr. Le Dran’s Observ. Surg. (1771) 222 Bougies, contrived of waxed Linen rolled up.    1804 Abernethy Surg. Observ. 201, I introduced a small hollow bougie‥into the œsophagus, and injected half a pint of milk and water.
    *(William Smellie, A Course of Lectures upon Midwifery 1742.)

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Asshat is a pretty popular insult in my corner of teh intarwebz, and I’ve seen discussions of its literal meaning and etymology – for starters, there are two (American) English words ass, and it’s not clear which one was used here.

  12. John Emerson says:

    The fucktard and moonbat always accompany the asshat.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Did “asshat” develop solely for use in internet contexts where “asshole” proper would be blocked by some filter, or did it serve some other perceived semantic need?

  14. Really? I thought it was understood to refer to people who have their heads so far up their asses that they may require special head-gear. Or is that folk?
    It appears to be more popular than I imagined, and should certainly appear in the OED. But not at the cost of excluding all the words I listed. I mean, a dictionary which feels the need to list a single use of the phrase “god-smith” ought to reference the use of “God” as a term of address by 5%ers, which has had a huge influence on hip-hop since the eighties and originated the term “G.” Much as I love browsing through the OED and stumbling upon a hapax like gaunce, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth if I look for the etymology of the term “Jake,” used in NY to refer to police officers throughout my life, and find it isn’t even defined yet. But I’m just griping, Mr. L-Hat is prolly right.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Really? I thought it was understood to refer to people who have their heads so far up their asses that they may require special head-gear.

    That’s one possibility. Another is that it refers to hats put on donkeys to protect them from the sun – “dumb as straw” may have been combined with the stereotype of the stupid donkey to yield a double-barrelled insult.
    I don’t remember the other suggestions.
    (And the corner of the Internet I’m referring to does not censor asshole or anything else.)

  16. A friend and I refer to one another as Wingnut and Moonbat, as fortunately our political differences are not an insuperable barrier.

  17. “But almost none of these words will be around, or even remembered, in ten years, which is why there’s no point including them, especially in this age of Urban Dictionary.”
    Most of these words have already been around for ten years, and I suspect most of them will last a while yet.
    Gotta side with Joe on this one, Hat. I was personally using steez, swag, in the cut, lacing, 5-O, baller, hooptie, shorty, and whip ten years ago, and they’re still current. Some others on Joe’s list sound familiar, though they never made it into my idiolect.
    How about ignored senses of more familiar words, like duck for coward, swerve for punch, and scary for cowardly? I’m more certain of the staying power of words that I’m familiar with on Joe’s list than these, probably to some, unfamiliar senses, but they are spoken by a lot of people and I don’t think they’re going anyhwere soon, especially scary as cowardly. I love that one, because it’s all about how you say it. He’s a scary motherfucker. Clear as day, depending on context, or, all on its own, tone.

  18. “Jake,” used in NY to refer to police officers throughout my life
    Yeah, that’s another that’s here to stay.
    The dictionary makers are not looking down their nose at these words or denying them their existential value; they are making a judgment as to what will stick around long enough for it to make sense to include them in a print dictionary that they want to stay reasonably current for a decade or so. All the lexicographers I know love slang.
    I know you detest racism as much as I do, Hat, but if we imagined it on a spectrum from burning crosses to the deeply, sincerely subconscious, then I would have no ill will for those caught on the latter side of the spectrum — especially considering you or I could conceivably evince it ourselves — and I can’t think of a better example than assuming the ephemerality of urban terms that might sound strange. What do you think?

  19. Of course, what I’m implying is that these lexicographers, whom I admire, have some soul-searching to do. We live in a deeply racist society, and everyone has a part to play in the fight. As always, I’d relish a Hattic smack if you think I’m off base.

  20. Here’s to LH, where thorny issues like this can be discussed with sincerity and respect by people who really care about them. Good on you all!

  21. To me, the esoterica and/or ephemera (we can argue about how long a word needs to be in use before it is no longer “ephemeral,” but 10 years is still just a blip. Get back to me in 2031) of the hip-hop subculture is precisely the kind of clutter that doesn’t belong in any general purpose dictionary like the AHD. In the profoundly unlikely event I ever had to parse some rap lyric, the Internet offers me ample resources to do so, just as it offers specialized dictionaries of obscure terms characteristic of other styles of music, archaeology or entomology. Those deeply immersed in a particular subculture are perhaps the last who should opine about whether their particular argot is of even the smallest interest to the general reader. When the word “skeet” starts appearing in the New York Times or on my nightly newscast, I’ll be happy to reevaluate.

  22. Gotta side with Joe on this one, Hat.
    OK, just another sign that I’m terminally out of it. I stopped listening to pop/rock/rap on a regular basis a quarter of a century ago. But I agree with laowai—specialized argot belongs in specialized dictionaries unless it’s so ubiquitous that it needs to be in general ones, which I don’t think most of those terms are. But what do I know, fossil that I am? Let me tell you about the time I rode with General Pershing…

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    It seems that one should get a reliable baseline understanding of how the dictionary in question treats regional/generational/subcultural lexical items in general before playing the race card. I note that, at least in the free online version, it’s incapable of glossing the perfectly standard-to-me (and very much Caucasian) idiom “don’t harsh my mellow,” lacking as it does both “harsh” as a verb and “mellow” as a noun. OTOH, it can handle “grody to the max.”

  24. It seems that one should get a reliable baseline understanding of how the dictionary in question treats regional/generational/subcultural lexical items in general before playing the race card.
    Speaking of definitions, to me “playing the race card” means “invoking race cheaply and inappropriately to further one’s argument,” and I don’t think I did that. No, I haven’t read the intro(s) to the AHD5, since it costs forty bucks even on Amazon, so I guess I’m somewhat guilty of not doing my homework; I just picked up where Joe R. started and ran. But I have done some reading about lexicographers’ methods, and considering this dictionary is an ambitious one, weighing in at over 2000 densely printed pages, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to raise a few issues on which lexicography touches, even if it isn’t mainly responsible for them
    Questions like, why for the method implemented in writing this dictionary did the words Joe R. and I mentioned all fall into the category “subcultural”? The answer isn’t that it’s non-white speakers all chose a few professions or hobbies with necessary jargon or the like; it’s that a segment of the population has been viciously segregated from the rest of the populace since the late 19th century (since the latter enslaved the former) and that, segregated against their will, this segment has developed a dialect whose syntax and vocabulary differ here and there from the standard. Dictionaries influence people. Why shouldn’t the influence be used against segregation, at least to a degree. Nobody is asking all lexicographers to become activists first and linguists second; that’s why the disagreements we had above matter, disagreements about the prominence and staying power of words unfamiliar to many white Americans.
    In the profoundly unlikely event I ever had to parse some rap lyric, the Internet offers me ample resources to do so
    What about the profoundly unlikely event you take a job at a school in Trenton, or even pass through such a place. These words are spoken outside of rap songs.

  25. Apologies for the typos — the missing period after the first paragraph, and the period at the end of the penultimate sentence in the second paragraph, where a question mark should be.

  26. Apologies if I’m missing something crucial, too. I don’t mean to imply that everyone but me (and Joe R.) is blind to American racism. I’ve just seen it firsthand a lot, and have been reading this and this lately. These books are enraging. But if I’m shoehorning the issue, I’d be happy to be shown how I’m doing it, and accept that I’m wrong.

  27. Some of this language was invented in rap lyrics, but it’s all used a lot elsewhere. Anyway, I would imagine lexicographers would be interested in slang, but are mainly exposed to new language usage by politicians and academics, and like Jamessal said, tend to underestimate the staying power of strange sounding urbans lang with black origins. And I do think a lot of them look down on hip hop. But I am young, so I guess I might not have the necessary perspective. And there’s plenty of room for dictionaries with different priorities. I just wish some of them showed the avid interest in the language around me that is evident in the OED for Scottish regionalisms, for example.
    And no one’s playing the race card, just by mentioning it could be a factor.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m just saying you need some baseline. For any specialized variety of English (professional/regional/class/generational/ethnic) the dictionary is going to include some lexical items and exclude others. Saying here’s a bunch of hiphop-type words that I happen to know and I’m disappointed are excluded tells you nothing much about overall shortfalls or disparities in the dictionary’s coverage unless you’ve looked to see what’s included from that source (the new edition has both “ho” and “gangsta” for example, which I’m pretty sure the earlier edition I got in junior high in the late ’70’s didn’t) and picked some other variety to see what sort of inclusion/exclusion ratio it has experienced. So-Cal-centric white surfer/stoner/Valley-girl dialect (with some admixture of Chicanoisms) might be a good test case, since it’s often deprecated but also has some pop-culture resonance and takes race-as-such off the table.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    That old AHD had the famous appendix on IE roots which was massively significant in my subsequently studying linguistics in college, but I don’t think I used it at all to decipher vernacular Britishisms in punk rock songs (or other oddities like Van Morrison using “crack” to mean “craic”), older AAVE-isms in blues songs, or Jamaicanisms/Rastaisms in reggae songs. I mean, how uncool would you have to be to use a standard hardbound reference work for that?

  30. Saying here’s a bunch of hiphop-type words that I happen to know and I’m disappointed are excluded
    Well, I take a tiny bit of issue with that paraphrase, since I don’t listen to much hip-hop, but still know those words; I find the conflation troublesome. But on the whole I take your point, and it’s a good one. If my criticism is to have any teeth, it needs a baseline; otherwise I’m just making vague points, relaying history most here probably know, and ranting. Thanks.

  31. If its main appeal is its appendix of Indo-European roots, its purpose is quite different than I took it to be, and my criticism doesn’t much apply to it. I really took this as excuse to grouse about the policies towards including “new” words in dictionaries in general. The OED, is much better of course, but I feel not really up to snuff. And I think it would probably fare much better in the punk rock Briticisms department. I like the idea of testing it on “So-Cal-centric white surfer/stoner/Valley-girl dialect (with some admixture of Chicanoisms)” but wouldn’t know where to start.

  32. J.W. Brewer: Irish and Scots Gaelic craic is in fact derived from Scots and Northern English crack ‘fun, amusement, conversation > bragging’, not vice versa. In Scotch-Irish American, it came to mean a sharp remark, hence (originally U.S.) wisecrack.

  33. I really took this as excuse to grouse about the policies towards including “new” words in dictionaries in general.
    Me too. And I think we should keep grousing.
    I like the idea of testing it on “So-Cal-centric white surfer/stoner/Valley-girl dialect
    Again me too — sort of — in that I can appreciate the possible empirical value. My problem is that there’s no “surfer, stoner” analog on the black side. Surfing and getting high are hobbies resulting in jargon or slang (I’m forgetting the distinctions drawn by Michael Adams), and though those are perfectly respectable areas of linguistic study, the black words we’re talking about — the ones that arose because, in the early twentieth century, mobs kept black people from moving into their neighborhoods and then, in the mid twentieth century, state and local governments conspired (unwittingly, you could say, of some participants — but results talk) to keep black people segregated, many of them now in housing projects) — I don’t know… if I were a lexicographer, that history might trouble me I if I were tasked to judge both types of speech by the same criteria for inclusion in a dictionary.

  34. In other words: no regions in this country have been fucked over like black regions. And though a scientist could say, “Hey, it’s just my job to study dialects — I didn’t create the conditions for their fruition,” the books that are a result of that study may or may not reinforce a fucked up situation.

  35. Am I making sense? Because I could stop ranting. Probably should anyway.

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    It’s not clear to me that the lexicographically-overlooked “black words” we’re talking about (from Joe R.’s list above) are predominantly words that have been around for a century and are common to the lexicon of most black Americans (would you hear all of them in the hallways at an AME Zion Church clergy convention?) as opposed to having arisen just in the last few decades and being to at least some degree marked for generation/class/register within the black community. My perhaps incorrect sense is that for whatever reasons innovative/opaque-to-outsiders lexical items have taken on a significance in at least some styles of rap/hip-hop in more recent decades that is a lexical departure from the earlier history of black popular music and, indeed, from AAVE in general, whose distinctiveness was classically described in more phonological/syntactic terms than in lexical terms. (“Classically described” here meaning something like “in circa 1970 work by John Baugh I read for class circa 1985 as remembered by me in 2011”) So, e.g., going back 40 years, Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” has zero lexical items that IMHO would be opaque to the median white listener and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has by my initial count no more than two distinctively black lexical items, of which “process” (in the hairstyle sense) is covered by the new AHD via cross-reference to “conk,” with the other being “hog maws,” whose soul food sense may or may not be straightforwardly compositionally derivable from the standard senses of “hog” and “maw” given in the dictionary. (I’ll give you three if you think the meaning of “red black and green liberation jumpsuit” is non-compositional, and ok maybe four for the racial sense of “brother” but that’s 2.e in the new AHD and not opaque to the median white listener w/o access to a dictionary. “Scag” for heroin is now perhaps a bit archaic but it’s not my impression it was racially marked back in the day.)

  37. It’s not clear to me that the lexicographically-overlooked “black words” we’re talking about (from Joe R.’s list above) are predominantly words that have been around for a century and are common to the lexicon of most black Americans … as opposed to having arisen just in the last few decades and being to at least some degree marked for generation/class/register within the black community.
    It’s not clear to me either, and I think my criticism was probably misplaced. I wonder the degree to which black segregation, in areas with access to only poor education, has affected the stability of the black lexicon. I find it frustrating that the dialect spoken by a large percentage of blacks would be incomprehensible to the average AHD5 reader, although I accept that lexicography might not have a fix anywhere within the realm of its methodology — that might rant was inappropriate. Sorry if I wasted anyone’s time. My recent reading may have given me some tunnel vision.

  38. “… that MY rant,” that is. Sorry.

  39. No, no, it was a fine rant, no apologies needed!

  40. There is no longer a medical doctor on the staff of the AHD, because the larger portion of the AHD editorial staff was laid off in March 2011. Sales of the dictionary had been declining for years.

  41. By the way, addressing Joe’s concerns above, I tried as an editor of the AHD (much of the editorial staff was laid off by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in March) to enter baller, steez and many of the other words from hip hop culture that Joe mentions. I remember that my citation for baller was Lil’ Troy’s song “Wanna Be A Baller”, for its savory rhyme of baller and impala.

  42. There is no longer a medical doctor on the staff of the AHD, because the larger portion of the AHD editorial staff was laid off in March 2011.
    Damn, I’m very sorry to hear that. Thanks for weighting in with an insider view, and I’m sure Joe R will be glad to hear you were fighting the good fight!

Speak Your Mind

*