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Defining the Dictionary in the 21st Century


It’s easy to type a word into Google and get a brief definition. However, using a physical dictionary is an entirely different experience. 

Steve Kleinedler can relate to both the online and the physical experiences as the editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, which recently issued its fifth edition with more than 400 heretofore undefined words. 

Despite the initial assumption that editing a dictionary may be boring, Kleinedler says it's surprisingly interesting and democratic work. "If it weren't democratic you still wouldn't hear regionalisms," he says. "People use the language that they want to use...and there's really no changing that."

Because language is used relatively freely, Kleinedler views the current edition of the dictionary as a descriptive - versus prescriptive - endeavor.

"We are paying attention to how words are used and reporting on it," he explains. "Although you can look at it as though we’re writing these definitions, what we’re really doing is giving you a little story of how people use this word in real life."

Print editions of dictionaries come along every 12-15 years, Kleindeler explains; while updates are made throughout the year to the online version. "In addition to adding words, we're also revising many, many more existing words depending on things like subject review," he notes.

Despite more print outlets switching to digital formats, Kleinedler says that nothing can really compare to physically looking through a dictionary.

"The one nice thing I like about print dictionaries is that there's this process of discovery where when you're looking up a word, you're noticing everything else on that page - you learn this entomological fact, or you see a picture, something that leads you to something else," he explains. "That type of browsing doesn't really happen when you look up words online."

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