Today we bring you a guest post by Susan Steinway, Archivist Coordinator at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. We recently unearthed the original paper ballots from the early years of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel, and we wanted Susan to have a chance to look at them before we sent them off to a storage site. She spent an afternoon digging through boxes and documenting interesting comments that the Panelists had written on their ballots. Her account of what she found was originally written for HMH’s internal online newsletter, HMH Headlines.
The American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, by Susan Steinway
We all know (and love) the American Heritage Dictionary. We know about its pioneering use of both prescriptive and descriptive information on word usage, as well the panel of experts on usage, but have you ever really thought about all the work involved in gathering all of that together?
A few months ago Senior Editor of Trade and Reference, Louise Robbins, offered me the opportunity to look over some of the usage questionnaires from the mid-1960s before they were sent off to storage. It was bracing to spend a couple of hours with such an opinionated and often cranky group.
For example, here is historian Barbara Tuchman on the use of “author” as a verb:
But for the most part, the panelists were a little bit more diplomatic in their comments. Here’s Isaac Asimov on the same question:
And, of course, they were occasionally funny. Here’s American Heritage magazine editor Oliver Jensen on the word “trek:”
And writer Russell Baker on splitting infinitives with a sideswipe at corporate jargon:
The panelists were often aware of their own imperfections, as well as the pitfalls of being an expert. That’s probably what makes them so useful to HMH and the dictionary, and why the American Heritage dictionary is so useful to everyone. Here’s author and critic Malcolm Cowley’s final comment on his questionnaire:
And Isaac Asimov again:
Finally, a personal note: as sometimes happens when you are delving into recent archives you encounter something quite familiar, or in my case something family. I had forgotten that my uncle, William Zinsser, was on the panel. He is the only remaining member of the original panel still serving on it. Suddenly, I was looking at comments written in familiar handwriting and sounding so like him, both amusing and thoughtful, along with a touch of the teacher. Here he is on the word “zoom”:
on the word “transpire:”
And finally, a comment reflecting his lifelong love of baseball:
When I visited Uncle Bill over the holidays and I mentioned reading his questionnaires, he said he didn’t remember writing so many comments on them, and went on to speak of how much he loves being on the panel and fighting the good fight for proper usage while allowing the language to evolve.
Thank you for visiting the American Heritage Dictionary at ahdictionary.com!