For the Birds Radio Program: American Heritage Dictionary

Original Air Date: Feb. 23, 2002 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: July 19, 2004; Feb. 23, 2004

Since the 1980s, Laura has been on a mission to get “Blackburnian Warbler” or at least “Blackburnian” entered in the American Heritage Dictionary.

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American Heritage Dictionary

I was just looking up a word in my American Heritage Dictionary, the most recent edition, when I chanced to notice an entry for the word Blackburn, defined as a borough of northwest England. Next to it was the entry for Blackburn, Mount, a peak of the Wrangell Mountains in southern Alaska. But nowhere could I find an entry for Blackburnian warbler.

Back in the 80s I was on a campaign to add Blackburnian warbler to The American Heritage Dictionary. This lovely little bird, which nests in coniferous and mixed forests of the northwoods and in pine-oak woodlands of the Appalachians, is a genuine piece of our American heritage. Meanwhile, the Fourth Edition of this so-called “American Heritage” dictionary includes hoopoe, friarbird, and demoiselle crane, which are all un-American foreigners, and downy woodpecker, coot, and plover, which may be American birds but aren’t nearly as pretty as a Blackburnian warbler. This edition even includes words with such limited utility as fissipalmate, “Having lobed or partially webbed separated toes, as in the feet of certain birds” and forficate, referring not to some strange avian mating ritual but to “Deeply forked or notched, as the tails of certain birds.” And as if to add insult to injury, they use a barn swallow as an illustration for that entry, plus they give barn swallow its own entry. Is that fair?

When I was a fledgling birder, I thought that the word Blackburnian referred to the black and flaming orange plumage of this species, and there was no dictionary to tell me otherwise. Actually, the bird was named for Mrs. Anna Blackburn, a patron of ornithology who had a museum in Fairfield, Lancashire, England in the late 1700s. So how come The American Heritage Dictionary makes no note of this, when they list and illustrate Cooper’s hawk, named for some ornithologist named William Cooper, also born in the 1700s? Couldn’t they at least mention that Blackburnian warbler serves as an occasional menu item for Cooper’s hawks?

I wrote to an editor of The American Heritage Dictionary way back in the 1980s, asking him to please rectify this egregious omission in the next edition, and though he sent me a nice letter saying he’d consider it, it didn’t appear in the third OR fourth editions. One criterion for inclusion is that a word be used in books or other publications. In the introduction to the current edition, the editors write, “this Dictionary reflects a very broad base of American usage. Thousands of words are illustrated by quotations from contemporary writers, who reflect all regions and backgrounds of our culture, and by quotations from writers of the traditional English canon. Thus, the phrasings of Mary McGrory and Stephen Jay Gould appear beside those of Edith Wharton and William Faulkner, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Samuel Johnson, and other luminaries.” I’ve mentioned Blackburnian warblers several times in my books and in my columns for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, though obviously my work doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Stephen Jay Gould and Shakespeare. I guess it’s up to other, more famous writers to start using Blackburnian warbler in their work. So I wrote to humor writer Dave Barry asking if he could possibly, in an upcoming column, weave in Blackburnian warbler, perhaps even calling it to the specific attention of the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary. If we manage to get the word added to the dictionary at last, our language will be richer and birdwatchers and scrabble players will be forever grateful.