Mawson, C.O.S., ed. (1870–1938). Roget’s International Thesaurus. 1922.

Usage in The American Heritage Dictionary

The Scope of Coverage

  The Traditional Canon The first things that come to mind when we speak of "usage questions" are points of grammar and diction that have occupied critics for a century or more: the differences between who and whom, between and among, enormousness and enormity; the qualification of absolute terms like unique, equal, and parallel, and so forth. These questions exemplify the domain of usage in its most general form. To be sure, over the years the traditional canon has accumulated a good deal of unexamined grammatical lore that does not hold up well under scrutiny; see for example the Notes at and and preposition1. But we believe that it is canonical issues like these that give language criticism its historical continuity, and they still constitute the largest single category among the Dictionary’s Usage Notes. In some cases we have added Notes dealing with questions that, though not historically part of the canon, have much of the quality of traditional issues: the use of periodic to mean "occasional," the use of disingenuous to mean "naive," the potential ambiguity of deceptively. The traditional canon has always been surrounded by a penumbra of items like these, introduced by individual writers or reference books in the interest of making specific points. What makes the canon central is not so much the particular words it includes, but the broader linguistic questions that they raise.   28       New Words, New Issues The Dictionary’s treatment of usage has been extended to cover a variety of words and expressions that have attracted critical attention in recent years or that bear on the issues facing the language at the beginning of the 21st century. Some of these are drawn from the language of evolving social developments, such as domestic partner, lifestyle, and safe sex. Some are associated with the language of publicity, business, or public affairs, such as culture, empower, headquarter, infrastructure, legend, and paradigm. Others belong to the language of scientific argumentation; for example, there are Usage Notes on the difference between method and methodology and on whether one can speak of a quantity as having been "reduced by 150 percent." Still others have a more general provenance, such as the use of holocaust to mean simply "disaster" or "misfortune" and the use of ad hominem to denote a personal attack not made as part of an argument. And then there are the words we use to talk about the language itself. In recent years, for example, items like Standard English and Black English have figured prominently in public debates about the language, and these issues are dealt with in Usage Notes, as are other newsworthy linguistic terms such as child-directed speech, literate, nonstandard, and General American.   29       One class of these new entries deserves special mention. Digital technologies have had a sweeping effect on the language in recent years, as evidenced by the hundreds of new words and new senses that appear for the first time in the Dictionary. These include not just technical terms like active-matrix, applet, multiprocessing, and object-oriented, but words that suggest the broad cultural influence of the technologies, such as chatroom, cyperpunk, netiquette, netizen, and smiley. And with these words have come new usage problems particular to this domain. When does one capitalize the word web? When does one use the word virtual as opposed to digital, or the prefix cyber- as opposed to the prefix e-? Is it compact disk or compact disc? What salutation does one use to open an e-mail, and what valediction to close it? Of course things are changing too rapidly for norms to become fixed, but it is important at least to signal that these new forms are part of the domain of criticism.    30       Usage and Social Diversity Over the last 30 years, one of the most radical changes in the scope of language criticism has been its extension to a wide range of usages involving questions of social diversity. There have been widespread public discussions, for example, about the names of groups defined along lines of ethnicity, religion, race, physical capacity, and sexual orientation. Some of these discussions are summarized in Usage Notes such as those at Anglo, Asian, black, Chicano, color, deaf, Eurasian, gay, gender, handicapped, Hispanic, homosexual, Jew, kanaka, Latina1, Native American, and queer. In one sense these questions are not new, but in the past they were not taken up as part of the public discussion of language. It is only in recent times that these issues have emerged as critical questions, as a result both of the rise of official pluralism and of a more general interest in the political and ideological aspects of usage.   31       In matters like these, of course, a dictionary has no authority to dictate "correct" usage (at least not in the linguistic sense of the term). Most of these words are subject to a great deal of variation, even among members of the groups they apply to, and their connotations and use can change very rapidly. But dictionaries can help by providing information on the social and linguistic backgrounds of these questions, which can be quite complex—information that may spare some readers from resorting to unnecessary circumlocution and others from giving inadvertent offense.    32       Usage and Gender With a few exceptions (as with black and gay), the usage questions raised by the names of ethnic and other groups are socially complicated but linguistically simple. The replacement of one such word by another rarely raises grammatical difficulties or creates ancillary linguistic problems. But gender differences are so extensively and intricately woven into the fabric of the language that efforts to change usage often require a great deal of attentiveness and linguistic ingenuity. So it is not surprising that feminism has had more widespread consequences for questions of usage than any other recent social movement, or that the debate over these issues has been particularly energetic. These issues are discussed in Usage Notes at –ess, gender, he1, hero, lady, man, mistress, Ms., person, she, and they.   33       With these items, as with the names of ethnic and social categories, we have tried to present the linguistic and social background that readers will require to make informed decisions about the issues. Because the linguistic program of feminism has called for such extensive and varied changes in usage, we have also made an effort to gauge its overall effects on the attitudes and practice of writers with regard to particular words and constructions. The results of Usage Panel surveys have been particularly instructive here, since they show how selective educated speakers have been in adopting or rejecting patterns of usage. For example, 81 percent of the Panelists accepted the generic use of man in Modern man is tyrannized by an excess of information. However, a breakdown of the survey responses on the basis of sex shows that only 58 percent of the female Panelists accepted this use of man, in comparison to 78 percent of the male Panelists.   34       Context plays a role in the selectivity with which people preserve or adopt usages, and we often design our surveys with multiple examples for the same issue, since even a single word can prove to be more acceptable in one context or another. As we record in the Note at man, 67 percent of the Panelists accepted the use of chairman as a gender-neutral term in The chairman will be appointed by the Faculty Senate, whereas only 48 percent accepted its application to a woman in Emily Owen, chairman of the mayor’s task force, issued a statement assuring residents that their views would be solicited.    35       These figures provide another vindication of Meillet’s dictum that every word has its story. Like most critical users of the language, the Panelists seem to revise their usage on a case-by-case basis, evaluating each item in the light of the sometimes conflicting claims of syntax, established use, and gender equity. In a sense, one can say that the feminist linguistic program has already succeeded in forcing all writers to reflect carefully on the ways in which usage might imply or reinforce gender stereotypes.    36       The Panel’s divisions on these items reflect controversies about these usages that are not likely to be resolved in the near future. But these are precisely the kinds of controversies that ensured the vitality of language criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here, as elsewhere, achieving uniformity is not what matters. Indeed, that goal seems antithetical to the genius of English, whose strength has always resided in its capacity to accommodate heterogeneity, whether geographic or social. What draws us together as speakers of English is not our sameness but our ability to find in our differences the occasion for lively critical discussion.   37