Title: American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
Publisher: xrefer.com and Houghton Mifflin
Tested: Dec. 19-20, 2002
Houghton Mifflin does not directly publish its excellent dictionaries online, rather they license them to third parties. The superb American Heritage Dictionary 4th edition (AHD4) is available through several Web sites, Bartleby and Atomica being the two best implementations. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (AHDI) is freely available online only through the excellent ready-reference collection at xrefer.com.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms has nearly 10,000 entries, making it the largest idiom dictionary. For perspective, Oxford University Press' Oxford Dictionary of Idioms has half that number of entries and is not available online. Cambridge University Press' International Dictionary of Idioms (CIDI) is available free of charge online, but it has only 7,000 idioms. For fairness, Cambridge does have a dictionary of phrasal verbs that includes many of the entries in AHDI that are not in CIDI.
AHDI includes colloquialisms, sayings and metaphorical phrases of American English. (CIDI also has British and Australian idioms). While many of them appear also in AHD4, there is more detailed information and excellent examples for the idiomatic meanings in AHDI.
Take, as an example, the expression "all thumbs," which I — an archetype of an ESL person who was and is befuddled by many Americanisms — wrongly believed to mean someone having good manual dexterity. After all, your thumbs are the most important and most versatile of your digits.
AHD4 includes "all thumbs" in its idioms section and clearly explains that it is used to describe someone lacking physical coordination, skill or grace, and even offers a synonym: clumsy. AHDI provides a more precise definition — "Physically awkward, especially with respect to the hands" — offers a sample sentence and explains the proverbial origin of the idiom. For comparison, CIDI has an ever more restrictive definition, limiting its use to awkward use of one's hands, offers two somewhat redundant examples and clarifies that in British and Australian English the idiom is "all fingers and thumbs."
AHDI also provides dates of the first use of a given idiom, or at least an approximation. For example, "green thumb," which is used to describe an avid and experienced gardener, came into use in the first half of the 1900s.
Often, only AHDI provides an adequate explanation for the allusion in an idiom. While CIDI provides a good definition and example for "red herring," it does not provide any explanation. The AHD4 does imply that the herring gets its red color after smoking and that it has been used to distract hunting dogs from the trail, but only AHDI refers to the strong smell of the smoked herring, which was the real distractor for the dogs, and dates it correctly to the end of the late 1800s.
How do I know that the date is correct? I checked the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. While it does not provide a clue to the allusion, it is usually the most precise for dating first usages of a term. Correct dating, however, does not always apply to the entries in AHDI.
For example, AHDI estimates the first written appearance of the idiom "whipping boy" to have been in the early 1900s. The Oxford English Dictionary shows its first example from 1647 and the next one from 1715, providing enough proof. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary does not provide proof in form of a dated quotation, but uses the same year, 1647, in specifying the date of first usage.
Of course, beyond all this you may be wondering who wanted to distract the dogs from the trail? Certainly not the hunters. Unfortunately, none of the commercial dictionaries that I checked provided an answer.
The Encarta World English Dictionary gives the somewhat strange explanation that red herrings were used to teach the dogs not to get distracted from the trail. I found the most plausible clue on a rather small etymological Web site (http://www.wordorigins.org) that explains that poachers used red herrings to divert the dogs so that they could bag the prey themselves.
AHDI drew a blank for very few of my test words that other idiom dictionaries, or even general dictionaries, could provide a good definition and sample sentences. One word it drew a blank on was "whammy", which was very well-defined and illustrated in AHD4 and Random House Unabridged; well-explained in Merriam Webster's Unabridged Dictionary; and decently defined in the Oxford English Reference Dictionary. Maybe it is not considered an idiom, although CIDI at least explains a derivative of whammy, the "double whammy."
Overall, AHDI provided the most substantial answers for my test questions and the best answers across the board in terms of the combinations of definitions, explanations of the allusions or origin of the idioms, sample sentences and dates for first use.
The xrefer software does not include some of the features that would make searching more efficient because it saves those for the fee-based collection offered in xreferplus. This explains why it is not possible to limit the search to one or more specific resources in the xrefer collection. You can search all categories or one specific category, such as Language and Usage. This category also retrieves matching entries from other sources, such as the New Fowler's Modern English Usage, the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics and the Oxford Companion to the English Language. Luckily for most of my test questions, the entries from AHDI came up on the top of the list. This ranking is particularly important when you are looking for common words used idiomatically, such as "dog," because the search term may appear anywhere in an entry.
The software offers options to specify exact phrase searching, approximate spelling (which comes in handy when searching for anglicized Asian and Arabic names and words, such as mujahedin, which are spelled differently in the various sources) and you can use wild cards anywhere in your query, although this was not relevant for this test.
One nice feature is that the results show adjacent words to the one you are looking at, provide cross references to other sources and remind you to look up "also" terms where your search word is not the lead word. These are listed as links, as is the case with the idiom "to paint the town red" when you search for the word "red."
Although xrefer will make some changes to its Web site in February 2003, removing some titles from the collection, this will not affect the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, which will remain an excellent free source.