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The Good Book 

The latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary struggles with both social changes and Mardi Gras arcana.

Much as the righteous invoke the Bible, the learned defer to the dictionary. Any dispute relating to meaning and usage in the English language is inevitably resolved by the exhortation to "Look it up in the dictionary!" Orthographic correctness -- you know, spelling -- and proper pronunciation (you say to-MAY-to and I say to-MAH-to) are less exalted but no less definitive lexicographical functions. Hence, the importance of a good dictionary.

And that would be a Webster's, correct? No, not necessarily. In fact, just about anyone can append the Webster name to a dictionary since, for purposes of U.S. copyright law, "Webster's" is not considered a trademark like "Bayer," but rather a generic term like "aspirin." Although the G. & C. Merriam Company, publishers of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries ("The Voice of Authority"), asserts legitimate heirship to the proud Noah Webster name, there's nothing they can do to enforce their claim.

Recently, however, new players in the dictionary market have eschewed the Webster name in hopes of establishing general acceptance for their own copyrighted brand. Entrants include the Random House Dictionary (which comes in such varieties as unabridged, college, office, desk, paperback) and the Encarta, Microsoft's attempt at a hostile takeover of the English language. Then there's the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which made history when it was first published in 1969 by including, for the first time ever in an American dictionary, the "F word."

A new millennium dawned and with it arrived the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, available in both hard copy and CD-ROM. The new edition contains not just the formerly unthinkable "F word" but also a generous selection of other vulgarisms, both sexual and scatological. Yet lexicographers tiptoe gingerly around the minefield of ethnic and gender politics. For example, the American Heritage editors agonize in a prefatory note over whether it is "correct" -- "proper" no longer seems descriptively precise a term for lexicographers' determinations -- to countenance "chairman" or "chairwoman" or "chairperson" or simply "chair" in public discourse. Their solution is to alert the diligent user of the dictionary to the controversy, dutifully reflecting what appears to be a statistical analysis of the thinking of their assembled panel of usage experts. As tortured as some of their reasoning can be, it nonetheless accurately reflects current linguistic confusion and ferment. (Curiously, "herstory" makes the fourth edition cut, but not "womyn," not even as an entry citing its use by certain radical feminist groups.)

As hefty a tome as preceding editions, this latest revision of The American Heritage Dictionary renders all illustrations in color, another first. Even word entries (but not definitions) are printed in a bold blackish-green that will be familiar to anyone with an inkjet printer. It's quite a handsome and useful volume, but with Web-based subscription dictionaries that promise continual updating just over the digital horizon, the print version may soon be less a staple item and more a luxury good. Version 4.0 may not only be more portable but more affordable than a fourth edition.

Yet although there is much to recommend about American Heritage, it does contain a couple of glaring errors -- not of usage, but of fact. A laudable feature of the new edition is the inclusion of select regionalisms, or words that might be unfamiliar to dictionary users outside of certain geographical regions of the country. Most of the entries singled out as peculiar to New Orleans are of French derivation (beignet, faubourg), a notable exception being the term "krewe," New Orleans argot for a Carnival organization. An inspection of that word's definition and the accompanying regional note -- and a consultation with the grand Pooh-Bah of New Orleans Carnival, Henri Schindler -- confirms that the most recent edition is in error when it defines a krewe as being "any of several groups with hereditary membership." There's nothing hereditary about it, says Schindler, though it certainly helps to have the right pedigree. American Heritage then goes on to state in its regional note that the krewes "are responsible for electing Rex, the annual king of the carnival." Rex is actually selected by a committee of five members of the Rex organization -- no other krewes have any say-so.

Also, while not factually wrong, the use of the phrase "Mardi Gras Carnival" is a bit dubious. It's a little like saying "Christmas Yuletide," though the distinction between Carnival (the season) and Mardi Gras (the day) is admittedly slipping. Such minor gaffes may provoke stern looks from the lexicographical elite, but this fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary is just fine and dandy for the rest of us.

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