Looking Up Words In A Book Not So Strange Yet

"Smoot" is one of 10,000 new words featured in the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, out this month. In an era when every definition is just a click away, why publish an enormous book of words? For the answer, host Audie Cornish turns to the dictionary's executive editor, Steve Kleinedler.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Smoot: a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches, often cited when discussing the inherent arbitrariness of measurement units; after Oliver Smoot whose height was used as the basis of the measurement.

Smoot is one of 10,000 new words that are featured in the Fifth Edition of "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language" out this month. And yes, that's a print edition.

Now, why in an era when every definition is just a click away, publish an enormous big old book of words? For the answer, we turn to the dictionary's executive editor Steve Kleinedler. He joins us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia?

And what say you, Mr. Kleinedler?

STEVE KLEINEDLER: It turns out that people are still very passionate about their print dictionary. We did a lot of market research going into this. And what we discovered, and what you might think might be the case, is that people want it both ways - print and electronically. And for this edition we've made it available in both formats.

CORNISH: And, as we mentioned, there are 10,000 new words, a couple of them I've got here: ollie, which is a skateboarding maneuver; ono, which is an Hawaiian word for delicious. Another word that came up is: sphagettification, the extreme elongation of an object by tidal forces, as it falls towards an extremely massive astronomical body like a black hole. This is a new-new word, right? I mean this is not a word that's been floating around science for a longtime and we just didn't know about it?

KLEINEDLER: It's relatively new compared a lot of science terminology. A lot of words that are added have actually been around for a while. It's a rise to cultural prominence or a some sort of resonance in the public discourse that we had to bring them into limelight, as it were.

CORNISH: Talk about how you decide on the new words. What are the parameters? Who are the people behind those decisions?

KLEINEDLER: We send out a lot of our terminology to consultants. I worked with a legal consultant, a chemistry consultant, atomic physics, and...

CORNISH: And I read that you have this usage panel...

KLEINEDLER: Yes.

CORNISH: ...which was fascinating. It was just like the ultimate literary dinner party; Rita Dove or Jonathan Franzen.

KLEINEDLER: The usage panel, which is headed up by Steven Pinker, is a group of about 180 people who use words for a living. They are either linguists or poets or writers or journalists, and with more contentious debate over is this correct, is this is incorrect? You know, how do you pronounce this word? Every year, we send out the panel a ballot full of questions asking their opinions. And then the results from these ballots we then frame into a usage notes. For example, when talking about the difference between flaunt and flout.

CORNISH: What about words that are politicized, like waterboarding or anchor baby, which are also two new words?

KLEINEDLER: The trick is to define them objectively without taking sides and just presenting what it is. And, in some cases up, you know, anchor baby is definitely a very charged, politically charged word.

CORNISH: I want to look it up and see what you guys did.

KLEINEDLER: I do, too.

CORNISH: I have the book here...

KLEINEDLER: And I have the iPad App.

CORNISH: OK.

KLEINEDLER: I got it.

CORNISH: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: You're beating me to it, but hold on. I'm close.

KLEINEDLER: All right.

CORNISH: Wait. Wait. OK. OK, anchor baby. You give me what you've got there on the app.

KLEINEDLER: A child born to a non-citizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil; especially such a child born to parents seeking to secure eventual citizenship for themselves, and often other members of their family.

That's a long time to write. It falls into a gray area where we felt it was better just to state what it was, and then people can filter their own life experiences through the word and judgments on it as they see fit.

CORNISH: Can you tell us some of the words, some of your favorite words that made it into the book?

KLEINEDLER: There's a few cool things. I like what dog breeders now call a Mexican hairless dog. It is a Xoloitzcuintli. And I like it cause it's just spelled with Xs and Zs. It just looks cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KLEINEDLER: X-O-L-O-I-T-Z-C-U-I-N-T-L-I.

CORNISH: This is a Scrabble word, definitely.

KLEINEDLER: Yeah, if you can...

CORNISH: This is my new Scrabble dictionary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KLEINEDLER: Well, if you like Scrabble, here's a good one for you: zij, spelled, Z-I-J. Another way to get rid of a troublesome Z; which is an astronomical text tabulating information on the positions and motions of the sun, moon, planets and stars; especially a text written in Arabic or Persian in the eighth or ninth century.

CORNISH: Wow. Steve Kleinedler is the executive editor of the Fifth Edition of "The American Heritage Dictionary." Thank you so much for talking with us.

KLEINEDLER: Thank you for having me on.

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