What if I told you there was such a thing as a promotional video for a dictionary? What would you imagine it to be? A staid, chalkboard lecture set to the steady rustling of a schoolmarm’s quiet library shoes? A patient, slightly defensive justification of how words are chosen and defined?
What if I told you it was from the '70s? That would prepare you for a certain amount of unintentional humor—funny pants and hairdos, perhaps a ridiculous disco soundtrack. If it’s from the '70s, a certain amount of psychedelic weirdness is to be expected, even for something as boring and straightforward as a dictionary.
Well, nothing can prepare you for this. In 1973, the staff of the American Heritage Dictionary pitched in to explore important questions like “What is pronunciation?” “What is meaning?” “What is usage?” “What is spelling?” in a video riff on Woody Allen’s film Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). (The terrifying Easter Bunny suits in the beginning are a nod to that film’s opening credits.) It involves bear suits, chemistry sets, psychiatrists’ couches, and a Trailways bus. Also, incredibly for its time, it includes plenty of secretaries, but not one sexist joke about secretary chasing.
Here is “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About: Sects, Sets, Sex, prefix, frankforts, Waldorf, idle, American, peanuts, gin, Heritage, cabbage, Dictionary, Rasputin, bassoon, cohort, rum, putty, rotor, usage, coquette, alfalfa, zipper, Mississippi,…etc.: But Were Afraid to Axe!!”
Visit ahdictionary.com to find out more about the usage panel, pronunciation guides, central meanings and other important parts of the dictionary making process. The heirs to those crazy editors also have a blog at http://ahdictionary.tumblr.com.