THE RANDOM HOUSE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE Second Edition, Unabridged Edited by Stuart Berg Flexner Random House. 2,510 pp. $79.95
STRANGE AS it may seem today, one of the issues that got the nation's columnists and editorial writers all lathered up a quarter-century ago was a dictionary. Taking time off from opining on the Cuban missile crisis, the pundits of 1962 thundered against a huge volume popularly known as Webster III -- that is, the third edition of Merriam-Webster's New International Unabridged Dictionary.
The problem that angered the editorialists -- including those at The Washington Post, who urged readers to boycott the book and stick with Webster II, published in 1934 -- was that Webster III was permissive. It described usage, but declined to dictate which words and meanings were correct or respectable.
As is their wont, readers basically ignored the punditry and made Webster III a commercial success; it's still available today, slightly updated, for $79.95. But publishers responded by turning out new dictionaries less tainted by permissiveness. The most conservative response was the American Heritage Dictionary (now available in a college edition for $15.95), which included stern notes describing some widespread usages as "unacceptable" or just wrong. Somewhere in the middle was a completely new unabridged dictionary that Random House put out in 1966.
I used the Random House Dictionary of the English Language for 20 years and grew to love it for its comprehensiveness and clarity. But now I've found an unabridged dictionary that's bigger and better: the Random House Dictionary of the English Language: Second Edition, or RH II. This enormous volume is a fine dictionary, beautifully printed and generously illustrated, with definitions so complete they sometimes turn downright chatty. But it is also a general family reference book that includes, inter alia, a 31-page color atlas and quick translating dictionaries of French, German, Spanish and Italian (frankly, Latin or Russian would be more useful than the Italian section).
Just off the press, RH II is almost breathtakingly up-to-date. If you're confused about the meaning or etymology of "yuppie," "supply sider," "nonbank," "golden parachute," "fractal," or "supermicro," you'll find them all here. RH II's definitions of "contra" include the Nicaraguan version. The adjective "bad" is defined both in the traditional manner ("not good in any manner or degree") and in the Michael Jackson sense ("outstandingly excellent"). The entry for "superconductivity" mentions the "recent discovery" changing the word's traditional meaning. The abbreviations "MADD" (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), "DOS" ("disk operating system"), and even "AZT," the AIDS drug, are included. For some reason "SDI" is not. Not all the 50,000 new entries are neologisms. For years I kept a list of words I couldn't find in the first Random House unabridged. RH II has done a pretty good job of rounding them up: "autodidact," "flagon," "machismo," "ombudsman," and "swivet" all made the new edition, but "paranomastic" and "maladive" did not.
Reflecting new scholarship of the past quarter-century, RH II is chock full of charming examples of American regional usage. It lists, and locates geographically, nine different terms for a submarine sandwich ("hero," "grinder," "hoagie," etc.). It explains such regionalisms as "waiting on line," the New York City version of waiting in line, and "making down," which means "raining hard" in parts of Pennsylvania.
On the burning question of yesteryear -- whether a dictionary should describe usage or dictate it -- RH II comes down squarely on the permissive side.
The entry for "between", for example, offers a sample sentence about "sharing . . . between the five of us" -- a disturbing model that is offset somewhat by a usage note saying that "among" is normally used for more than two persons. A list of "Words Commonly Confused" at the back of the volume includes the pair "fortuitous" and "fortunate". No wonder -- RH II itself lists "lucky; fortunate" as a definition of fortuitous and calls this "standard use." It endorses the passive use of "comprise" -- i.e., "is comprised of," which grates on me. The entry for "media" says "usually used with a plural v." but then offers this example: "The media is (or are) not antibusiness."
In a few cases, RH II seems to me plain wrong. Can it really be argued in 1987 that the most common meaning of "gay" is "showing a merry, lively mood"? ("homosexual" doesn't appear until the 5th definition). A "hacker" is not someone "who attempts to gain unauthorized access to proprietary computer systems." In computer circles, such a person is a "cracker"; "hacker" refers to a programmer, with no evil connotation. RH II accepts the name "Fujiyama" for Mt. Fuji, a pure mistake on par with Japanese spellings like "Olegon" and "Carifornia."
But these quibbles are, to use a great dictionary word, like hemidemisemiquavers in a grand symphony. The 2,500 pages of RH II comprise a wonderfully informative and useful reference tool, without doubt today's unabridged dictionary of choice (at least until Webster IV comes along).
In a sense, this hefty hardback is probably a dinosaur. By the time Random House's third edition comes out, unabridged dictionaries and other reference books will have gone beyond paper. RH III will no doubt be published electronically -- on a CD-ROM system with a a few gigabytes of RAM, controlled by a DBMS and displayed on a million-pixel screen. If you don't understand that lingo, go out and buy the Random House Unabridged -- you'll find it defines every word in that last sentence.
T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of The Washington Post and author of "The Chip."