An American Editor

September 11, 2013

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

In the land of word resources, one stands above them all: The Oxford English Dictionary. Why? Because once in the OED, always in the OED.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the dictionaries and usage manuals most editors rely upon. Each edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary runs about the same page length and uses about the same size typeface, and is about the same thickness as previous editions. The only way this could occur is if some words got dropped as new words were added.

In olden days, I kept all my “outdated” dictionaries, largely because I liked books and couldn’t bear to part with a book. But after getting estimates to move books across country (several times), I realized that the heavyweights that I no longer ever opened needed to go. And so they did — a move that I regretted once I settled down and knew that any further moves would be local.

“Outdated” dictionaries and word usage books do have a place in the editor’s arsenal. If you are editing a novel that takes place in the 1950s, slang from the 2000s won’t be very helpful. You want to be able to check meaning and usage that is relevant to the period in which the action takes place.

Authors are products of their times. Authors write with the words with which they are familiar, the words they grew up with, that they learned in their schooldays — words that may have been removed from the dictionary to make room for more current words. And just as authors are products of their time, so are editors. We tend to use words the way we were taught to use them, and occasionally learn from an astute editor that the way we used the word is no longer acceptable. (Someone very near and dear to me drives me crazy by constantly saying “cool”. But I do recognize the lexicon era from my much younger days :).)

What brought this to mind was an article in the September issue of The Atlantic, “When Good Words Go Bad” by Jen Doll (with a different title online: “How to Edit a Dictionary”). I remember some of the now-gone words, like “ostmark” and “tattletale gray.” Another word/phrase the article mentions is “complement-fixation test,” which I still come across in material I edit.

I have also noted changes in hyphenation of compound words/phrases.

An editor has to be word knowledgeable, but what does an editor do when a word needs to be checked but it isn’t in the dictionary? Today, the easiest path is to search the Internet. I’ve done that, but never have felt comfortable relying on such a search. I’m from the days when the value of a source was measured by the source’s (national or international) reputation. I don’t know an English language editor who wouldn’t agree that the OED is a reliable source or, for American editors, that Bryan Garner’s opinion as to word usage is more valuable than general Internet search results.

Consequently, I find that I am not only saving and using older versions of what I consider to be reputable sources, but that I am buying them when I come across them in bookstores. My path backward in time is a split road — some paths go back decades, some only an edition or two.

One of the most interesting resources I have is H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed., revised). I have the original fourth edition along with its several supplements, a multivolume discourse on and exposé of the American language. You can find these books and the supplements at places like (e.g., at this link) and other antiquarian book shops. They are not popular and thus are often inexpensive. I recommend buying them if you want to learn about the American language from a person who was a recognized language authority.

Although I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked, the point I’m trying to make is that my outlook about resource books has changed. In my youth, I would never have considered having and using prior editions of dictionaries or usage books. After all, I live today and my language should be of today, or so I thought.

Now that I am an older, wiser, and more experienced editor, I recognize that in the absence of those older resources, not only is language forgotten, but writings can become less meaningful. What bohemian meant in 1930 was not the same as it meant in 1950 or in 1970, and certainly not what it means today, but what it meant in 1930 might make the difference between understanding and not understanding the allusion Sinclair Lewis was making when he used the term in 1931.

I know I have written before about the resources a professional editor has (should have) on hand (see, e.g., Working Effectively as an Editor — New Print Resources and The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf), but what I failed to discuss — perhaps even consciously recognize — is the value of prior editions of major resources in my day-to-day work.

Another interesting aspect is to see how respected resources have changed — “grown” or “matured” — over time, which is visible by comparing editions. When I have time, I’ll pick up the three editions of Bryan Garner’s American usage books and compare an entry. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes they are more obvious, but what they always are is informative.

When I am uncertain about how an author has used a word — my recollection of its meaning being different than the author’s use would indicate — I’ll open a couple of editions of a dictionary and see what changes, if any, have occurred over the years.

What I have discovered is that being able to research through prior editions of a language resource has made me a better editor. It certainly impresses authors when I can give a meaningful comment that traces language usage and explains why the current word may not be the best choice. The corollary, I have also discovered, is that impressed authors ask my clients to be sure to hire me to do the editing on their book.

Do you keep a library of older resources that you have replaced? Do you use them or are they just taking up shelf space? Or are you an editor who relies on the Internet?


  1. To the question: “Do you keep a library of older resources that you have replaced? Do you use them or are they just taking up shelf space? Or are you an editor who relies on the Internet?”

    I reply: Yes, sometimes, and mostly.

    Like AE, I can’t bear to part with a book, especially a reference volume. Feels sacrilegious, and also leaves the more rational concern that someday I will need it. Very occasionally, I do. But situations calling for back-usage are rare in my work and life, so most of the time I use the Internet for lookup. Its range as a resource blows my mind! (Hm, what era is that expression from?) I cannot imagine operating without it. But I also can’t imagine not using a traditional library or not having a small library in my own home. All are needed in any form of editing outside narrow technical niches.


    Comment by Carolyn — September 11, 2013 @ 6:33 am

  2. I edit within the world of Roman Catholic publications, and many of the manuscripts I work with are scholarly works
    from persons from the 16th century and later. As noted, being knowledgeable about the usages of words and idioms in
    former times (and cultures) is essential. Example: In a recent 17th-century manuscript, the protagonist speaks of “spilling his guts” — but in his lexicon that was literal, knifing someone in a duel or altercation, not our slang for being a snitch or “spilling the beans.” Quite an interesting change!
    Fortunately, there are some fine online dictionaries of the languages and centuries in question that provide invaluable assistance in this, as well as universities that sponsor online scholarly results. One of the finest is The University of Chicago’s ARTFL Project (The Project for American and FrenchResearch on the Treasury of the French Language), in
    which French dictionaries from the 16th-19th centuries are available online:
    More to the topic of this post: I do use all the dictionaries and reference books I can, and keep my old ones for the
    reasons mentioned. But I also have hunted for and tracked down many old Catholic Bibles, missals and prayerbooks
    in various editions and in Latin. I learned early on that often the manuscript will cite a prayer or text from the 1800s,
    which even if in English would have been an earlier version — and often, in my mind — much more elegant and
    clear English than what we’re using today. Most of those can’t be found with any accuracy online. And yes, I’m running
    out of shelf space for all these literary treasures. But hey, Imelda Marcos collected shoes; we editor types collect…


    Comment by Patricia — September 11, 2013 @ 10:12 am

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