or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, June 20, 2009


There are plenty of words in English that mean more or less the same thing, and that can be used interchangeably with no appreciable loss in meaning: "coat" and "jacket", while not identical, are near enough in meaning that you can say one or the other and people will get your drift. There are also words that have more than one meaning, one of which is so primary that the others are eclipsed: you can say "pachyderm" instead of "elephant" if you like, and even though there are other pachyderms (the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus), people are generally going to know what you mean.

And then there are words that are related but not at all the same, words that cannot be interchanged because they really do change the meaning of the text. Have a look at this sentence from a recent Slate piece about Anne of Green Gables:

More than 50 million editions of the first volume are in print around the world.

Now, "edition" has a small cluster of closely related meanings, and not one of them is correct in this context. Here are the pertinent definitions from The Free Dictionary:

a. The entire number of copies of a publication issued at one time or from a single set of type.
b. A single copy from this group.
c. The form in which a publication is issued: a paperback edition of a novel; an annotated edition of Shakespeare.
d. A version of an earlier publication having substantial changes or additions: a newly revised edition of a standard reference work.

Definition 1a is the only one that really applies, and using that definition, there have surely been hundreds of editions of Anne of Green Gables--thousands, because the book has been translated into many languages. But not millions, and assuredly not fifty million, unless every single copy that was ever published was its own original edition, a costly endeavour.

What makes it even worse is that just two sentences later, the word is used correctly:

But perhaps the greatest tribute to Anne's enduring vitality is the decision by the solemn eminences who edit the Modern Library to issue and heavily promote a centennial edition of the first volume in the series.

In that first instance, how hard would it have been to use the correct word, "copies", instead of the wrong one? I honestly don't understand.


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