Conscious Language in The American Heritage Dictionary
Conscious Style Guide speaks with Steve Kleinedler.
By Sarah Grey • February 22, 2018
It’s a weird moment to be a lexicographer. Chronicling a living language will always, by definition, be a work in progress, but digital tools and an ever-faster news cycle now offer a bigger corpus to mine for words, while the popularity of dictionary sites and apps creates a steady stream of data about what people want to know about language.
In the middle of the swirling tides of language change, you’ll find Steve Kleinedler.
In the middle of the swirling tides of language change, you’ll find Steve Kleinedler. As executive editor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s American Heritage Dictionaries, he spends his days reviewing citations and consulting subject-matter experts to keep entries up to date—that is, when he’s not talking about new senses of unicorn and snowflake on NPR’s Here & Now or bemoaning the skunked terms of the Trump presidency on TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.
While Twitter and media outlets love to focus on trendy new words and tech terms (glamping, rando, cryptocurrency), Kleinedler, like most lexicographers, spends the bulk of his time on unsexy terms. “I’m trudging through physics words with the physics consultants,” he says. “We talk about snowflake because no one wants to hear about the revision to capacitor, to use a word I edited this morning.”
Still, the news is as relevant as ever, especially in the era of Trump. To evaluate words for dictionary inclusion, lexicographers must distinguish between formal and informal speech; most of the text they look at is formally published and thus (presumably) edited. However, a president’s public utterances—including tweets and off-the-cuff comments—are automatically part of the historical record, which Kleinedler says makes them an “amazing trove” for lexicographers and linguists, whatever their problems for the rest of the world. “Normally we don’t have access to the uncurated streams of thought. Previous presidents gave us far fewer unscripted moments.” Those moments can change the history of a word. (Shithole, for example.)
Under Kleinedler’s leadership The American Heritage Dictionary has been a quiet force for progress in conscious language.
The American Heritage Dictionary has a reputation for conservatism that stems largely from the circumstances of its founding. In her book, Word by Word, Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper (a collaborator and friend of Kleinedler) describes the AHD’s founding in 1969 as “not just a linguistic response . . . but a calculated cultural response” to controversy over the decidedly descriptivist Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Guided by a panel of experts (from writers to linguists to crossword-puzzle creators, polled annually), The American Heritage Dictionary was intended as the counter-countercultural dictionary.
Despite its staid image, though, under Kleinedler’s leadership The American Heritage Dictionary has been a quiet force for progress in conscious language. Pedants searching its pages for ammunition to use against the singular they will be disappointed; that usage has always been there, given that it’s been in common use for centuries, and in 2016 the editors added a specific sense meaning “a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.” (The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook have since followed suit.) Kleinedler, who recommends Stamper’s book for anyone looking for a deeper discussion of the singular they, says that for the AHD, “making the jump from its use to unknown referents—Everyone took their hat and left—to referents who are nonbinary is a very simple leap.”
Our Living Language prompts readers to think critically about language—a goal Kleinedler says he embraces not only as a lexicographer but “as a human who wants to live in a better world.”
While he’s quick to point out that he’s not a sociolinguist by training, he notes that there’s a larger cultural issue at play here. “If a person wants to use singular they for themself, why not? In what way can it possibly hurt you to use the language to describe people the way they ask to be described? To not do so is just mean. I mean, this isn’t a lexicographical issue now, because the usage obviously exists, but a sociolinguistic one. . . . In the case of pronoun usage, it really comes down to: Are you being a nice person or an asshat?”
A lengthy usage note elaborates on the history of they with a singular antecedent, recent changes in its acceptance, and the reactions of the Usage Panel. Usage notes are one of AHD’s distinguishing features, particularly its Our Living Language note program, which deals specifically with sociolinguistic topics. Created in consultation with sociolinguists John R. Rickford and Natalie Schilling-Estes, Our Living Language prompts readers to think critically about language—a goal Kleinedler says he embraces not only as a lexicographer but “as a human who wants to live in a better world.”
Take, for example, the usage note for ax. Its second sense as a verb, “variant of ask,” takes issue with anyone who would deride this common African American Vernacular English usage.
This sometimes means pushing back against the pedants—and The American Heritage Dictionary comes into the debate with receipts. Take, for example, the usage note for ax. Its second sense as a verb, “variant of ask,” takes issue with anyone who would deride this common African American Vernacular English usage:
Interestingly, it was once common among New Englanders, but it largely died out in the early 19th century. The widespread use of this pronunciation should not be surprising since ax is a very old word in English, having been used in England for over 1,000 years. . . . The forms in x arose from the forms in sk by a linguistic process called metathesis, in which two sounds are reversed. The x thus represents (ks), the flipped version of (sk). Metathesis is a common linguistic process around the world and does not arise from a defect in speaking. Nevertheless, ax has become stigmatized as substandard—a fate that has befallen other words, like ain’t, that were once perfectly acceptable in literate circles.
Another recent conscious-language shift deals with how we discuss suicide. Responding to years of advocacy from mental-health patients and practitioners, The American Heritage Dictionary now recommends the phrases die by suicide or kill oneself rather than the highly stigmatizing commit suicide. It also practices what it preaches: The idiom take (one’s) life is defined as “to kill oneself; die by suicide.” This phrasing has gotten a good deal of attention in the media, Kleinedler notes. “Then, when style guides, like the AP [Stylebook], begin advocating its usage and, therefore, people in the media do begin using it more, it’s easy to see that it’s a shift in language that has come into its own. It’s similar to the shift from mental retardation to intellectual disability a few years ago.”
The American Heritage Dictionary now recommends the phrases die by suicide or kill oneself rather than the highly stigmatizing commit suicide.
Because changes in language don’t always stick, part of Kleinedler’s job is determining which shifts are likely to remain relevant. Efforts to find a gender-neutral alternative to Latino, for example, took a while to settle: “We spent some time looking at Latin@. Aside from the fact that it was hard to get spoken utterances of this . . . during the period it was used, the domain of its use was fairly restricted, whereas Latinx is much more widespread and has caught on, in part because the @ suffix is binary but also because @ isn’t a letter people are used to seeing. . . . Latin@ never achieved critical mass and, in fact, was displaced by Latinx.”
While the processes of language change unfold, Steve Kleinedler will be watching. His linguistics textbook in the Routledge Guides to Linguistics series is titled Is English Changing? (February 2018)—but, spoiler alert, the answer is an energetic yes. If Kleinedler has anything to do with it, English will keep changing in ways that recognize and include more and more speakers.