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JACK SMITH

For the Mouths of Babes : There Is No Depravity in the American Heritage Children's Dictionary : Not Even the Word Depravity Itself

August 30, 1987|Jack Smith

I have received, as a gift, a copy of the American Heritage Children's Dictionary, and looking through it I feel the stolen delight a grown man feels when playing with a child's toys.

Not that it isn't a real dictionary. It has 36,000 entries, which is all the words I am ever likely to need.

But the large type, the color illustrations, the color-coded etymologies and the simple definitions make perusing it more a game than a scholarly pursuit.

It does have holes. For instance, I do not find the word peruse in it. Perhaps I should take that as a sign that peruse is a bit abstruse and that I should eschew it.

But neither abstruse nor eschew is in it either. Perhaps the point is that a children's dictionary is not inadequate but that I tend to use unnecessarily difficult words.

But the large type, the color illustrations, the color-coded etymologies and the simple definitions make perusing it more a game than a scholarly pursuit.

It does have holes. For instance, I do not find the word peruse in it. Perhaps I should take that as a sign that peruse is a bit abstruse and that I should eschew it.

But neither abstruse nor eschew is in it either. Perhaps the point is that a children's dictionary is not inadequate but that I tend to use unnecessarily difficult words.

To prove the point, there will not be another word in this column that is not in the Children's Dictionary, except words whose absence from it I am citing.

And if you think citing isn't in it, you are mistaken. The entry is on Page 127: "cite--verb, to quote the words of as an authority or example. 'I cited two sentences from our social studies book to prove my point.' cited, citing."

First, I naturally looked for certain words to determine the dictionary's level of depravity. But there is no depravity in it, not even the word depravity itself.

A blurb on the back of the book promises that it includes only "non-sexist and nonviolent language."

It has no abortion in it; no fetus to be aborted; no intercourse . It also, therefore, lacks abortion in its metaphorical sense and intercourse in the sense of exchange.

There is a heroine in this book, but no heroin ; there is no cocaine in it, and no AIDS . But gin is in and also whiskey . It does have pregnant in it. That word is defined simply as "having offspring that are developing in the body," which any child can surely understand.

It is strong on pets and animals. It has great Dane , collie , Doberman pinscher and German shepherd in it, but not pit bull . (Curiously, though, the animal illustrating the word terrier appears to be a pit bull terrier.)

It has gnu , kiwi and llama and every other kind of animal you can think of, including hippopotamus and dinosaur .

Naturally, the first noun listed is aardvark , an animal that has managed to get itself at the front of every dictionary by beginning its name with a double A , like the A-Aaabbay 24 Hour Door Opener Co., which is the first listing in the Los Angeles central-district telephone directory.

Aardvark is defined as "an African animal with large ears, a snout shaped like a tube and sharp claws. The aardvark uses its claws to dig into the nests of ants and termites and catches these insects with its long, sticky tongue." There is also a colored drawing of this winsome animal, beloved to all readers of the comic strip "B.C."

It would be unfair of the dictionary to use a word not defined elsewhere in its pages, so I looked up termite , and there it was: "an insect that lives in large colonies and that feeds on and destroys wood."

Animals that are likely to be regarded as adorable are often illustrated. Thus we see not only the aardvark but also the platypus, the panda, the koala, the llama and the bullfrog.

It is not shy in illustrating animals that might be regarded as loathsome, such as the centipede, the cobra, the adder, the copperhead and the gila monster.

I suppose it is possible that some little girls might regard bullfrogs as loathsome, but considering bullfrogs' capacity for turning into handsome princes, they are more likely to be thought enchanting.

By the way, the dictionary defines loathsome as "extremely unpleasant; disgusting" and enchant as "to put under a magic spell; bewitch; to delight completely; charm."

I found no foreign phrases in it. No joie de vivre , no piece de resistance , no fait accompli . Merry-go-round is in it, but not carrousel

The editors have taken pains to avoid any taint of racism or sexism. The illustrations feature more brown and black children than white and more girls than boys.

That's playing it pretty safe.

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