Originally published on Advocate.com August 01 2011 12:20 PM ET
“The job of dictionaries is primarily to describe how language is used, not to dictate how it should be used,” lexicographer Steve Kleinedler, The American Heritage Dictionary’s new executive editor, wrote in a 2009 op-ed.
The statement is part American Heritage Dictionary ethos, part personal experience. In 2009, Kleinedler’s husband died suddenly, just two months after Kleinedler and fellow editors had revised the definitions of several marriage-related words to reflect the changing culture. The definition of widower, for example, was revised from "a man whose wife has died and who has not remarried" to "a man whose spouse has died and who has not remarried."
“In the shattered aftermath of profound loss, an obsolete or incomplete definition of widower would seem an insignificant detail,” Kleinedler wrote, “but all such trivial details viewed together coalesce into a constant reminder of a two-tiered, unequal system. Therefore, having had the ability to revise the definitions that appear in a major American dictionary took on an important resonance for me.”
Kleinedler ascended to the dictionary’s top editor position Monday after 14 years on staff. He previously served as supervising editor.
“Samuel Johnson once defined the word lexicographer as ‘a harmless drudge,’” said Kleinedler, who sports a phonetic vowel chart tattoo on his back. “While lexicographers are indeed harmless, the 21st-century challenge of accurately and effectively reflecting our language in a world driven by nonstop communication leaves no room for drudgery. It’s thrilling to be a part of such an engaging discipline, and I’m honored to be in the position of helping to curate the English language.”