A few years later, in 1964, the American Heritage Dictionary was conceived as something of an antidote to the nonjudgmental Webster’s Third—so it was no surprise that Barzun was enlisted for the first usage panel. The panelists made their opinions known through annual surveys on disputed points of language use. His fellow panelist William Zinsser, the great writer about the art of writing, described some of the survey questions in a piece for Life magazine in 1969, when the first edition of American Heritage was published. (Zinsser, 90, is now the sole survivor of that first panel.) While most of the panelists approved of the general political use of regime or dynasty (as in “the Truman regime”), Barzun held the line: “These are technical terms, you blasted non-historians!”
In later years, Barzun’s views on usage continued to be heard through his friend William Safire, who wrote the “On Language” column for The New York Times until his death in 2009. In the early 1990s, Safire named Barzun to his “On Language Board of Octogenarian Mentors,” along with Alistair Cooke, Dictionary of American Regional English editor Fred Cassidy, and etymologist Allen Walker Read. (Safire himself was in his 60s at the time.) Barzun frequently corresponded with Safire, taking him to task for being too accepting of what he thought were semantic deviations, such as the shift in the meaning of jejune from “insipid” to “childish” (possibly influenced by the unrelated French word jeune, meaning “young”).
Language moves on: All the major dictionaries, American Heritage included, now recognize the “childish” sense of jejune, even if it was rooted in error. In retrospect, this and other usage complaints from Barzun may seem like quixotic carping. But with his passing we have lost a fervid voice for maintaining the clarity of English in the face of onslaughts from technology and commercialism. In his hopes for a plainer, more sensible discourse, Barzun was never jejune—in any sense of the word.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.