Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Usage Panel

For a number of specific reasons, you prefer the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition, unabridged, to all others in the tightly packed field of fine unabridged dictionaries.  AH5 is your go-to dictionary.  The format is exquisite, inviting the leisurely browse through its articles and features.

A sense of friendliness and expansive coverage radiates outward like the inherent good cheer of a barbershop quartette.  More to the point, the usage panel contains any number of writers and poets.  This demographic cheers you.  There have been and are now any number of academics and editors whose writings draw you to their subjects to the point where they have influence on your choice and use of words in your own writing and thinking, but the writer or poet is the authority of use and preferred meaning on whom you place the greater trust.  Sometimes, without advertising the fact, these writers are taking risks with choice and intent of meaning that excite you.  Writing should be exciting.  Thus you are motivated to include risky word use and extended meaning in your own prose.

Although you have had experience with the behavior and management of a scholarly book publishing venture, you are not at all certain how any usage panel for a dictionary is put to work.  The writers, editors, and academics you know are persons caught up in one or more projects that have enormous appetites, threatening to nibble away at the slightest crumb of spare time.  With that in mind, the image of a usage committee, sitting about a conference table while mulling over the entries of a particular letter seems so fanciful that you are caught in its whimsical net.

One such discussion could produce a page or two of significant mischief.  Imagine the leader of the usage committee, having been elected head by the narrowest of margins, bringing to the table the preferred order of meaning for the word bumble.  “I suggest we set as number one, “To speak in a faltering manner.”

“Absolutely not,” another of the panel offers.  “Number one should be “To move, act, or proceed clumsily. Then, See synonyms at blunder.”

“You know how I feel about gratuitous adverbs,” another will offer.  “I suggest, ‘…proceed in a clumsy manner.’”

Yet another, who will be revealed later on to have been a participant in any number of Ph.D. oral examinations, will venture, “Have you considered having number one the bumble sound of the bumble bee, thus uniting both definitions and placing them in yet greater perspective.”

“All right, which of you threw that Eberhart-Faber pink pearl eraser?”

Word choices are never easy; their meanings have regional, temporal, and class distinctions that should be revealed in a proper unabridged dictionary.  Users of all ages and backgrounds have reason to consult the dictionary, some in fact having been driven to do so by some authority figure, others still looking to verify an obscure word for the mischievous use of a triple-word score in Scrabble, and yet others having bet not only reputation but hard cash, a term not included in AH4, on the outcome.

When you were at that precarious junction between junior high school and high school, you were at enough existential pains over the causes of erection to have cause to refer to the term as circumstances dictated.  Junior high school peers were still referring to the phenomenon as “boner,” or “a woody,” but you were even then aware that the preferred high school use was “hard on.”  You had no thoughts then that the term would be hyphenated.  What usage committee worked on that? Was it contentious?  Did the discussion evoke memories of nostalgia among the usage panel?

When you had achieved while still in your mid-thirties your first appointment as editor-in-chief of a book-publishing venture, a copyeditor called to your attention the mention of Herman Melville’s most well-known novel in a manuscript you had okayed for production.  “Surely,” the copyeditor said, “You intend to use the hyphen?”


“Yes.  Moby-Dick.”

“With a hyphen?”

“Should be house style, you know.”

“Not,” you said, “in my books.”

It is a measure of how much you cared about the books that came through on your watch that a hyphenated Moby-Dick seemed a bit pretentious. Perhaps even quite pretentious.  But by the time your tenure at that publishing house came to an end, you had indeed found substantial reasons for hyphenating Mr. Melville’s title and, for that matter, the object of interest of many emerging young men.

Dictionaries are endlessly fascinating.  Some years ago, you had occasion to give the American Heritage Unabridged, third edition, to your dearest friend, Barnaby Conrad.  As you recall, you switched him over to the fourth edition at a Christmas.  To this day, you are not surprised to find a message from him on your answering machine, expressing a mixture of irritation and unabashed interest at having consulted the dictionary, then being led considerably astray.  Dictionaries have that effect on people.  They surely have that effect on you, making you wonder if you have used your tools correctly, if you could have chosen a better tool, and if some strange and wonderful word will find its way into your vocabulary for that propitious moment when only it will do.

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