The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition

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As soon as I heard that the 5th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) had come out, I rushed to the nearest Barnes & Noble bookstore (yes, they still exist — that was Borders that closed) and plunked down two Bens (hundred dollar bills) to buy three copies at $60 each:  one for my office at Penn, one for my study at home, and one for a friend.  The 5th ed. was actually published in November, 2011, but I was in China then, and didn't get a chance to buy my own copies until the day I arrived back on American soil.

I own at least one copy of each of the five editions of AHD; in most cases, I own multiple copies and all the available formats.  In fact you could say that I'm an "AHD kòng 控 / otaku"  ("AHD obsessive"). If it didn't sound too weird, I'd say that I'm in love with the AHD, but it does sound weird, so I won't admit that.  But I will confess that AHD, from the first edition, has always been my "number one" reference work and, if I were going to be exiled to Xinjiang or Siberia or marooned on a desert island, the one book, indeed, the single belonging that I would want to take with me, would — without any hesitation whatsoever — be the AHD.

All right, since everybody is probably thinking that Mair has become touched in the head, I'd better explain myself a bit.  After all, I do have my reasons for being so enamored of the AHD.  First and foremost is "Appendix I:  Indo-European Roots".  Whoever initially got the idea to include this appendix is a genius; we are all forever in their debt.  Second is "Appendix II: Semitic Roots", which I think first appeared in the 4th edition.  The third reason is that the essentials of the precious data in appendices I and II are incorporated into the etymologies for the main entries and in separate word histories.  The fourth reason is the careful attention paid to the evolution of the alphabet, both at the beginning of each letter and in an excellent table (on p. 51 of AHD5).  The list of my reasons for worshipping the AHD could be extended indefinitely:  the brilliant chart of Indo-European languages on the endpapers, the 4,000+ full-color illustrations, the up-to-date vocabulary, the superb usage notes, the splendid essays on Indo-European and Proto-Semitic language and culture respectively by Calvert Watkins and John Huehnergard, and so forth.

As a Sinologist, however, I am particularly indebted to the AHD for taking Chinese and other East Asian languages seriously and doing such a good job with them.  Much of the credit for this goes to Senior Lexicographer, Patrick Taylor, with whom I engaged in extensive discussion during the decade of editing that went into the making of the 5th edition.  Our correspondence was occasioned by the fact that I was delighted by the inclusion of a word that I had coined in the 4th edition, namely, "topolect", but disappointed that the definition given was not what I had intended.  On p. 1822a of the 4th edition, we find this definition:  "A set of similar dialects constituting any of the larger distinct regional varieties of a language.  For example, Mandarin Chinese is a topolect that includes the dialects of Beijing and Nanjing, and is distinct from Hakka, another topolect of Chinese."  Unfortunately, this definition signifies essentially what Chinese linguists mean by dà fāngyán 大方言 ("large / major topolect"), whereas what I had intended was simply no more and no less than what the Chinese mean by fāngyán 方言 ("speech form of a place", i.e., "topolect" — whether large or small).  I maintain that "dialect" is a serious mistranslation of fāngyán 方言, one that has wreaked endless havoc in linguistic analysis of Sinitic languages.  In a forthcoming paper that will appear in the Festschrift for Alain Peyraube, I explain in detail what is wrong with the mistaken equation of fāngyán 方言 and "dialect", and propose alternative renderings.

I should also note that the outstanding coverage of East Asian languages in AHD5 in general owes much to Zev Handel, who was the Etymology Consultant for Chinese and Other East Asian Languages.

I think that I probably first used the word "topolect" in writing in What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms (Also available as a 2.2 MB PDF.), Sino-Platonic Papers, 29 (September, 1991), 1-31, though I had been using the term in lectures already during the previous decade.

In AHD5, "topolect" is now defined thus:

The language or speech of a particular place, such as a country, region, village, or valley, especially:  a. Any of the Sinitic languages, such as Mandarin or Cantonese.  b. Any of the regional and local varieties of one of the Sinitic languages, such [as] one of the dialects of Mandarin.

I am satisfied with this definition.

A couple of years ago, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary informed me that they were going to include "topolect" in the OED.  I am interested in seeing how they define it.  No matter how it turns out, I'm grateful to AHD4 for making topolect a matter of record and AHD5 for defining it correctly and integrating it in their treatment of Sinitic languages as a whole.


  1. NCSmith said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    Geez, Victor, it looks like you're a certified word nerd. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

  2. Stan said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    It is a great reference. I consult AHD4 or AHD5 daily, among other dictionaries; 4 for convenience (because I have a pocket edition) and 5 for, well, the things you say: excellent usage notes, fine definitions, stellar etymological detail, and so on. And it's a beautiful book.

  3. Eric Vinyl said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    This is funny because I grew up with the AHD (the Third Edition, probably, if I'm not mistaken) and it wasn’t until I read “Tense Present” that I knew having that large, red volume as our home’s ubiquitous reference work was the product of a radical post-’70s upbringing in the same way that giving us peanut butter sandwiches consisting of peanut butter made only of peanuts on whole wheat bread was radical. OK, maybe not “radical,” but certainly reflective of an openness that underpins bold, conscious opposition to the dominant paradigm. (My parents raised us quite traditionally in some other ways.) Years before I realized I was a language-head, I just assumed everyone enjoyed poring over the family tree detailing the evolution of branches from PIE. And it didn’t occur to me till just now that most large dictionaries don’t have a similar chart. I taught myself Cyrillic over a weekend using the list of Russian letters under the entry for alphabet.

  4. Steve Kleinedler said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 4:01 pm


    On behalf of the entire editorial and production staff of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition, I want to thank you for these kind words! I have forwarded your essay to present and former staff members. I remember Joe Pickett and Patrick Taylor working on topolect for quite some time to get it just right.

    Steve Kleinedler
    Executive Editor, Reference Group
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

  5. Robert Hymes said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

    Victor, I'm in love with the AMHD too, and have been since the late '60s when my dad got me the then-current edition. I got the fifth edition as soon as it came out, but couldn't bear to give up my old friend, so it's at my office now.

  6. Mike said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

    I made it to the end of your 2nd paragraph and then had to go order it, hardcover. Thanks for pointing this treasure out to me.

  7. bratschegirl said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    My favorite high school English teacher was an AHD enthusiast. I've had one in my possession ever since; first the red one, don't know which edition that was, followed by the 3rd. Goodness me, we are seriously out of date here; we've also got the Book of the Month Club editions of the compact OED and the paperback 1954 Grove's. Santa's got his work cut out for him.

  8. Robert Coren said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

    My mother was on the staff of the AHD on the late 1960s, and is listed as Taxonomy Editor in the "red one". While I'm not obsessive about buying dictionaries, I do like having it in hardcover, and have discovered that when I look something up in it I always end up being seduced into browsing by one of the illustrations.

  9. Mike C said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

    Have loved the AHD since the first edition. Have the 5th on my iPad, hardcopy of the 3rd, and bookmarks to the Web versions of the 4th and 5th on my PC. When I worked at B. Dalton in the 1970s I guided customers away from MW and to AHD to such a degree that it showed up in the sales reports.

  10. Gene Buckley said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 8:24 am

    I still have next to me the (red) "New College Edition", which I did actually get as an award when I went to college in 1982, though we already had a previous edition in the house. I don't recall whether this occurs in other versions, but mine has a "Table of Indo-European Sound Correspondences" on the page facing the chart of the language family. Imagine! The brief text even discusses the initial correspondence in fish with forms in Latin, Old English, (Proto-)Germanic, and (Proto-)Indo-European. The reader is pretty much invited to use the etymologies to investigate the evidence for Grimm's Law. Just part of what made this dictionary perfect for a budding linguist.

  11. Edith Maxwell said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    I am also a huge fan of this dictionary and have owned it for several decades. I love reading out the cognates for *-reg to dinner guests, the list of which includes both 'regal' and 'rectum.' Thank you for pointing out that they also do a good job with Asian languages and for mentioning topolect. Looks like I'm going to have to upgrade to the latest edition!

  12. Gpa said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    The word "dialect(s)" has been translated by English speakers of the Chinese word 方言, into English, where it means "regional speech".

    To me, 方言 = dialect(s). But you seem to disagree to everything that's been established. "Topolect" [Topo, would be from the Greek word "τόπος", meaning "place"] would be closer when defined, but it's the same thing. Ask any Chinese person if they know what a "topolect" is, and almost everybody will tell you "No.", whereas, "dialect" is known to every Chinese speaker as having the same definition as "方言".

  13. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    from Cecilia Segawa Seigle:

    I would hardly call you an OTAKU. Otaku to me, is, obsessive, yes, but Otaku is a very introverted, psychopathic person who stays in a room surrounded by the objects of his/her obsession. That's where the word OTAKU comes from – O-taku is a house, home, where this person bolts in himself. In other words, OTAKU is a mentally sick person. You are hardly that. You are a real extrovert and open to all sorts of interesting things in the world and society.

  14. Cameron said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 11:20 am

    Wasn't AHD 5 one of the proximate causes of Joan Acocella's rant about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in the New Yorker earlier this year?

    [(myl) Yes.]

    I also hear tell that an essay on "Regional Patterns of American Speech" that was in the 4th edition was removed from the 5th. That sounds like a potentially useful inclusion, but I imagine such a thing is very difficult to keep up-to-date.

  15. Mark N. said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

    Another thing to like about the AHD is that their web version is freely available, unlike the OED's (though the web version doesn't include the appendices or illustrations). In addition, researchers/etc. can license an electronic version of the dictionary (all in a 72-megabyte XML file).

  16. Nathan said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

    Gpa: The reason why this matters is that calling the different Sinitic topolects "dialects" implies that they are different varieties of the same language. The word topolect is a great way to avoid giving this impression while sidestepping the fraught controversy.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

    Perhaps "topolect" should simply be defined as "a language which cannot be referred to as such for political reasons, esp. if SInitic."

  18. Bathrobe said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    The two salient definitions of 'dialect' in the link given by Gpa are:

    1. Linguistics . a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.
    2. a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language, especially when considered as substandard.

    In the first one the problem is the expression 'variety of a language'. The assertion that Chinese is 'a language' is extremely tendentious. Calling Chinese 'a language' and the topolects 'dialects' is a politically and culturally motivated act, not a linguistically motivated one. You will also notice that 'dialect' covers social dialects; 方言 doesn't. 'Topolect' avoids these problems.

    In the second one, the problem is (again) 'variety of a language', and secondly, 'differs from the standard language'. If Chinese 'dialects' are nonstandard, then what is 'Standard Cantonese' (which is not a contradiction in terms!)?

    Victor Mair's only agenda in using the word 'topolect' is to clarify the precise nature of 方言 in objective, non-political terms. In fact, topolect can be used for any language where so-called 'dialects' are so different from the so-called 'standard language' that it's hard to see why they are identified as belonging to the 'same language'.

  19. Robert Coren said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

    Having just spent 10 days in Catalonia, I wonder if there's a similar issue about what to call Catalan. (I note that Wikipedia calls it a language, and after 10 days of reading stuff in it I heartily agree.)

  20. A.D. said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

    All the etymologies for "otaku" as a slang term that I've seen claim that it derives from otaku's use as a formal second-person pronoun (so the slang term references the supposedly overly-formal speech of socially awkward geeks). I was under the impression that the negative connotations of the term (which Cecilia Segawa Seigle describes) arose long after its coinage, as a result of the notorious Otaku Murderer, Miyazaki Tsutomu, in 1989, and furthermore that the term had been somewhat rehabilitated in more recent years. Was I mistaken?

  21. Andy Averill said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 12:05 am

    It's only 60 bucks? Geez these days you're lucky if you can find a used copy of a textbook for that much.

  22. Rodger C said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    @Robert Coren: You bet Catalan is a language. It's a good deal more different from Spanish than Portuguese is, for heaven's sake. A more interesting question is whether Valencian is a language (as the Valencians aver) or a form of Catalan (as everyone else says).

  23. Robert Coren said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    @Rodger C: I wouldn't even have asked the question except that one of our guidebooks made contemptuous reference to people who describe Catalan as a "dialect", so I wondered if there were a significant number of such people. As for Valencian, I'd never heard of it until I looked at the abovementioned Wikipedia article, which seems to say that it's the name used for Catalan in Valencia, but I would be surprised if it were that simple.

  24. Rodger C said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    @Robert Coren: there have been Castilian-speaking Spaniards who refer to Catalan as a dialect, but it's something I associate with the Franco era. No doubt there are still some around, though, and aggrieved Catalans will find them.

    Catalan is divided into eastern dialects (eastern Catalonia, Roussillon and the Balearics) and western (western Catalonia, a sliver of Aragon, and Valencia). The Valencians I know tend to be aware only that they talk differently from Barcelona people, therefore they don't speak Catalan. I'm generalizing from a small sample, though.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    November 17, 2012 @ 6:04 am

    "Victor Mair's only agenda in using the word 'topolect' is to clarify the precise nature of 方言 in objective, non-political terms."

    Bless you, Bathrobe!

  26. leoboiko said,

    November 17, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    A.D.: Agreed, and it should be noted that the word is much less negative in Western fandom (where it means specifically a "devoted fan of Japanese pop culture") than in Japanese contexts.

  27. John Cowan said,

    November 19, 2012 @ 3:27 am

    In fact, even the Valencian Academy for the Language (not, N.B., the Academy for the Valencian Language) agrees that Valencian is Catalan. Only a few non-Valencian-speaking politicians think it's a distinct language. As the AVL says in very clear Catalan or Valencian (emphasis added):

    D’acord amb les aportacions més solvents de la romanística
    acumulades des del segle XIX fins a l’actualitat (estudis de gramàtica
    històrica, de dialectologia, de sintaxi, de lexicografia…), la llengua
    pròpia i històrica dels valencians, des del punt de vista de la filologia,
    és també la que compartixen les comunitats autònomes de Catalunya
    i de les Illes Balears i el Principat d’Andorra. Així mateix és la llengua
    històrica i pròpia d’altres territoris de l’antiga Corona d’Aragó (la
    franja oriental aragonesa, la ciutat sarda de l’Alguer i el departament
    francés dels Pirineus Orientals).
    Els diferents parlars de tots estos
    territoris constituïxen una llengua, és a dir, un mateix «sistema
    lingüístic», segons la terminologia del primer estructuralisme
    (annex 1) represa en el Dictamen del Consell Valencià de Cultura,
    que figura com a preàmbul de la Llei de Creació de l’AVL. Dins d’eixe
    conjunt de parlars, el valencià té la mateixa jerarquia i dignitat que
    qualsevol altra modalitat territorial del sistema lingüístic, i presenta
    unes característiques pròpies que l’AVL preservarà i potenciarà
    d’acord amb la tradició lexicogràfica i literària pròpia, la realitat
    lingüística valenciana i la normativització consolidada a partir de les
    Normes de Castelló.

  28. Rodger C said,

    November 19, 2012 @ 8:22 am

    How could I have forgotten Andorra? *Sings Malvina Reynolds song*

  29. David said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    In Switzerland, we say "Mundart," but that fits the AHD5 definition of topolect precisely.

  30. Bill Watkins said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    Can the improvements in subsequent editions of the AHD make up for the elimination of the most wonderful illustrative quote ever? The current on-line version defines the third sense of "anticlimax" as: "A sudden change in speaking or writing from the impressive or significant to the ludicrous or inconsequential, or an instance of this." The first edition followed this definition with the example: "For God, for country, and for Yale."

  31. Joe Fineman said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 9:29 am

    I see that the 5th ed. does not come with a CD-ROM version, as the 4th does. I have the latter, and it is convenient for most purposes, but wretchedly produced. There are no illustrations, the typography is ragged, and — inexcusably — you cannot click on references to the IE appendix; you have to jot the root down and then go thru several stages to get to it in the appendix. It is actually faster to find an IE root in the print version.

    If the 5th ed. had a CD-ROM free of those defects, I would buy it in a trice. As it is, to hell with it.

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