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Interview: Steve Kleinedler, Supervising Editor of the American Heritage® Dictionary

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Words are the most powerful force on earth. Words impact the human experience and ignite the human spirit, evoking our inner passions and exciting our audio-visual senses. They inspire, inform, and incite action. And when they are used wisely, at the right time and in the right place, the entire world changes.

In spite of the obvious power of words, the field of lexicography is quite small, and few individuals take the time to study these powerful weapons. One rising star in this field, however, is Steve Kleinedler, who has dedicated his life to linguistics, the study of the nature and structure of language. In fact, he has offered his body as a living sacrifice to his work: a phonetic vowel chart has been tattooed on his back.

As the supervising editor of the American Heritage® Dictionary, Steve Kleinedler assisted the development of the best-selling 100 Words series. Upon publication of 100 Words to Make You Sound Great, Steve Kleinedler managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry— reflecting on life, lexicography, and, of course, the power of words.

How did the 100 Words series begin?

In 2002, to help publicize our fourth edition of the American Heritage® College Dictionary, we came up with a poster of a hundred words we thought high school graduates should know. It proved to be really popular. So we thought, what if we put these words into a book format? So we listed the words and their definitions and etymologies in 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know. It was very successful, and laid the foundation for the best-selling 100 Words series. 100 Words to Make You Sound Great is the seventh of the series. Collectively, these books have sold over 500,000 copies, which is really something else. It speaks that people really like this. A hundred items is easy to for people to digest.

Yes, indeed. I found it very easy to approach 100 Words. Dictionaries can be such daunting things—and quite heavy too!

Since most people use dictionaries online these days, we’re losing the art of thumbing through dictionaries and getting lost in them, reading about other words that fall on the page of the word that you’re looking up. What the 100 Words books do is browse the dictionary for you. They give you a bite-size sample and you get to learn interesting things about words that you might not have known before.

So, out of this latest book, 100 Words to Make You Sound Great, what is your favorite word?

It’s hard to pick one. It’s kind of like asking a carpenter what his favorite nail is. I like what we do with the word juggernaut, which is itself an interesting word. In 100 Words to Make You Sound Great, we give quotations from well-known speakers. With this word, in addition to quotations, we have a really interesting note explaining how the word juggernaut entered English through Hindi via Sanskrit, where it ultimately came from. So there’s a lot of information about juggernaut, which means an overwhelming or unstoppable force. It’s kind of cool.

100 Words to Make You Sound Great was my first introduction to the 100 Words series and I really like the layout. My favorite word out of the book was modus operandi. It was highlighted in a speech given by Benazir Bhutto at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University. It was exciting to see the word come alive instead of sitting idle on the page. Words are such powerful things. In fact, Rudyard Kipling once said that words are the most powerful drug used by mankind. What insight did Kipling have that escapes the casual word user?

More than anything else in our society, the power of communication is what allows people not only to convey how they feel, but to manipulate the world around them. Words are more powerful than a drug in that a drug’s effect is fleeting, temporary, and limited to the person who ingests it, whereas your words affect everyone around you, or anyone who can read or hear what you’re saying. I think that’s a very potent quote.

Speaking of the power of words, and looking at the current political landscape: Barack Obama has emerged as a man who is driven in part by his oratory. How do you think his use of words equates to his political strength?

There’s no doubt that he is a very powerful, dynamic speaker. In fact, we used a quotation from one of his speeches in 100 Words to Make You Sound Great. This book was compiled last summer, when he was one of perhaps fifteen or sixteen candidates running at the time. We have other politicians in this book from across the political spectrum, from Reagan and Eisenhower to Bella Azbug and Barack Obama. One of the reasons we chose one of Obama’s speeches is… even then, he was known for his oratory, much like Reagan was known for his skills as a communicator. I think the ability to coherently convey your message and, at the same time, to get people excited about what you’re saying and motivated to act on it is a very strong gift. It’s one that’s very powerful in politics and one that Obama knows how to use very well. I think the fact that he’s a powerful speaker can only help him.

In the land of lexicons, what process must a word undergo before it can be granted space in a dictionary? You hear people joke about Beyoncé, and “bootylicious,” and words like that entering the dictionary, but what’s going on behind the scenes?

I will point out that we did not enter “bootylicious” in the American Heritage® Dictionary. However, there are a couple things going on and it depends on the type of word. There are some ideas or concepts that—well, take the elements in the periodic table, for example. All it takes is for the committee of the board that decides what the names of the elements are to say, “We’ve decided that element 111 is roentgenium,” and there you go. The people who are in charge of it said that this is what it is, and that’s all there is to say about it. It is what it is. Likewise, when they decided Pluto was not a planet anymore but a dwarf planet: You’ve got the body that decides this kind of thing saying, “Okay, we’ve created this category called dwarf planets.” It doesn’t matter how wide-ranging it is, it’s the fact that the people in charge of the IAU, the International Astronomical Union, said it was the case. Well, there you go.

Other words—by far, most words—are handled differently. Take slang, for instance. The American Heritage® Dictionary isn’t a slang dictionary. So, what happens when a slang term, for example, is considered to be entered into the dictionary? We would want to see how wide-ranging it is. Is it limited to New York or L.A. or Washington, or is it widespread? Is it used within only one sphere? Is it just used in the music world? Is it just used in the financial world or whatever? Or has it leaped across boundaries, is it being used more generally by people outside the area where the slang term first developed? So with slang, we want to see how widespread it is, whether it’s being used in a variety of sources.

There are many slang dictionaries and slang web sites are out there; they’re great and that’s what their focus is. I’m not putting down slang. I’m not a slang lexicographer; it’s not something that I am personally skilled at. For words that aren’t slang but describe, say, new innovations in computer technology—blog is a good example. You’ve seen how widespread it is, who is using it, and where. You want to look at a variety of sources and at some point, you just say, “Okay, it’s time for this word to go in,” because it’s either widespread enough or well-known enough or used enough.

And how often do you go through this process of updating?

Well, we’re constantly going through this process. Even when we’re not putting out a new edition, we’re continually adding new information into the database from which the next printings and the next editions will come. The new editions come out every ten to twelve years and at that time, we’ll have added thousands of words. In between—when it’s not a new edition coming out but a new printing—we may add several dozen or hundreds of words. So we’re constantly adding new material.

How broad do you think the field is for lexicographers? How many people would you say are currently working in this field, at least with you?

Well, there’s the lexicography done by the publishing companies and then there are the academics—you’ve got people in universities researching this from a theoretical standpoint, or from other standpoints. The Dictionary Society of North America has, I think, a couple hundred members. How many people are actively working in a publishing company creating print dictionaries at this point? Probably less than 50.

Wow. I didn’t know the figure was going to be that low.

Oh yeah. And, of course, there are lexicographers working in England. If you look at the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ve got several dozen more there. But in the United States, there are probably about 50 of us working in print. And there are probably that many, maybe double that, in a university setting.

So it’s probably safe to say that you know a lot of your colleagues.

I probably know most of my colleagues. Yeah, we get together once every two years for a meeting. I’m on the executive board of the Dictionary Society of North America. I—we’re—you know—a squirrelly bunch.

[laughs] All right. How is it that words effectively represent the world? I guess that’s more of a philosophical question, because it’s interesting how, if you look at a word on paper, it’s just a word. But when you actually say it, it forms an experience. There’s emotion attached to it.

You’re right, that’s philosophical. That touches on linguistics and socio-linguistics and a whole variety of related social sciences. You know, words are powerful. Words have meaning, certainly from my standpoint and what I studied in school. My background is in context. I think, whenever you’re looking at any of this, you have to look at the context in which words are stated. Then, in the field of discourse analysis, you’re looking at how what you’re saying or writing is perceived by others. The question that you asked—one could write, and people have written, dissertations about it. That’s a huge, wide-ranging question.

What do you see in the future for yourself, and also for the 100 Words series?

The future is interesting. The past ten years has been an interesting period in lexicography as more people move online. Here at the American Heritage® Dictionary, we license our content to a lot of online providers, including Dictionary.com and others. I don’t want to focus on just that, but there’s a bunch of online providers. Often, if you’re doing an online search, what you see is ours or the competitor’s. We’re not the only ones doing this, but it’s not like our work or our output is restricted to print. What’s going to be interesting is seeing what the increasing availability of content online means to the print dictionary.

As far as my job is concerned, it stays the same. I’m creating content and revising definitions; I’m drafting definitions. How that material is disseminated to the world may be changing, but the basic work is still what I’ve been doing for the past ten or eleven years.

As far as the 100 Words series goes, there will definitely be more. Like I said, they are very popular, they’re fun to talk about, and I do a lot of radio interviews about them.

Well, the future certainly looks bright! I can’t wait for the next title in the 100 Words series.

Select Titles from the “100 Words” Series

100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses (ISBN: 978-0-618-49333-3)
100 Words Every Word Lover Should Know (ISBN: 978-0-618-55146-0)
100 Words to Make You Sound Smart (ISBN: 978-0-618-71488-9)
100 Words to Make You Sound Great (ISBN: 978-0-618-88310-3)

For more information on the 100 Words series, please visit Houghton Mifflin’s website: http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

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About Clayton Perry