Cynthia Barnhart enlightens us about the historic nature of Clarence Barnhart’s dictionary done for the U.S Army.

The Very First Barnhart Dictionary: The Dictionary of U.S. Army Terms (1944)

The first paragraph of the prefatory “Notes on the Use of the Dictionary” lays out its purpose: “a working dictionary for a working army. … It is designed especially for the men who are writing or revising training literature, who are using training literature in the instruction of troops, and as far as it is available to them, for the men who are being trained.”[1]

The dictionary was made in the early 1940s when the United States was already at war with the Axis powers and needed to prepare thousands of recruits drafted into its army. Those recruits were not professional soldiers; they were not familiar with either military language or the reality of being part of an army prosecuting a war nor were they selected from a particular group of citizens; they were unequally educated and unprepared by their roles in civilian life for military service. Even the officer corps was not entirely professionalized but was diverse in terms of its members’ previous work experiences or knowledge of the prosecution of war or, indeed, of the military itself, including its weapons, organization, procedures and specialized use of the English vocabulary.

The dictionary was intended to help remedy—or at the least, address—the need to provide specific information about the language of the army to the men in the ranks and the officers leading them, no doubt with the hope that there would be more common understanding. Moreover, the most recent army dictionary had been completed near the end of the First World War, and, like the military itself, its language had evolved.

Clarence L. Barnhart, the respected editor of the Thorndike-Century school dictionaries, was selected to edit the new army dictionary. His appointment was proposed by the Council of Learned Societies in response to the war department’s request for recommendations. So, leaving his family in the Chicago area, he went off to war—like many others seconded to contribute to the national effort—and set up shop in offices at 165 Broadway.[2] (An office of the Secret Service was also in the building.) With mostly a staff of civilians, many of whom he had known in Chicago, and several individuals provided by the army, the group began the work.[3]

The work was of the sort familiar to a dictionary maker: read primary sources (manuals, directives, etc.) for vocabulary and meanings; assemble a preliminary list of entries based on a term’s importance and frequency of occurrence; reduce that to the most essential terms and meanings, all of which decisions were based on the editorial design of the dictionary including how to define the entries. Barnhart says in his preface that a preliminary list of 21,000 terms, winnowed down to a mere 7,000, became a finished dictionary of 312 pages (including a seven page list of approximately 520 “unauthorized” abbreviations, i.e., not previously published in any manuals). About two years later, it was published, on January 18, 1944.

The army dictionary was a technical dictionary, its entry list confined to procedure, equipment, organization, movements, responsibilities, etc., the vocabulary of a “working army” specifically defined, such as, absent without leave, advance guard, burst, burster, bursting charge, civil affairs station, civilian internee, cut and cover shelter, D day, howler, key terrain, mileage allowance, point control, precision fire, prisoner of war, reconnaissance, s, Section II, Section VIII, withdrawal, Women’s Army Corps, zone fire. Common vocabulary, defined in general purpose dictionaries, was excluded unless a familiar term had a specific military meaning. The style of defining is fairly rigorous:

absent without leave, away from any military post or duty without permission, but without intending to desert. The absentee need not necessarily realize that his absence is unauthorized. Abbrev: AWOL

ballistic coefficient, number that represents the power of a projectile to overcome air resistance and keep up its speed during flight. The coefficient is calculated from a formula that makes allowances for all factors that affect the flight of the projectile, such as its shape, weight, diameter, density of air, direction of the wind, and temperature.

by the numbers, preparatory command given in close order drill to signify that the movement ordered is to be carried out step by step, at the command of the drill instructor.

crawl trench, shallow connecting trench.

key terrain, part of an area that gives an advantage in combat to the side holding it.

military police, soldier or soldiers who guard property, prevent crime, enforce laws and regulations, arrest offenders, and perform other duties within the Army similar to the duties of civilian police. They are organized as the Corps of Military Police. Abbrev: MP

precision fire, fire in which the center of impact is accurately placed on a limited target; fire based on precision adjustment. Usually precision fire is used to destroy enemy installations, such as gun emplacements, structures, and supply points. Precision fire differs from area fire, which is directed against a general area rather than against a given objective in the area.

Secret Service, federal detective service that operates under the Treasury Department in peacetime. It aids the War Department in wartime by obtaining information about enemy activities. It is not to be confused with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is under the Department of Justice.

 The defining style throughout the book is immediate definition of the term and then, if necessary, a following explanation of its military function or application or, in the case of weapons and techniques, how they are used or operated. If “authorized,” an abbreviation closes the entry. Synonymous entries are also included, identified by the phrase “Also called,” entered and defined at their appropriate place in the list. One could say the result is dry, but this is a manual for a “working army,” designed to convey information accurately, clearly and concisely—and within a defining vocabulary that is accessible to the user, which might explain why it so resembles the school dictionaries produced by Thorndike and Barnhart.

Other stylistic decisions differentiate the army dictionary from a general purpose book: there are few pronunciations and these are presented in a respelling key (attaché = at a SHAY; chassis = SHASS ee). No parts of speech are provided; the wording of the definitions indicates grammatical function; for example, at waterline, definition one is the line on a vessel’s hull, the second defines the verb, to “aim at a point on a waterline.” Another difference relates to the expansion of definitions to include either in what situations they apply specifically (the last part of the definition of military government enumerates the responsibilities of such a government) or what amounts to differentiation  of related terms as at medium bombardment airplane, that includes the terms heavy and light bombardment airplane, which follow the definition. Clearly the goal is to clarify and encourage informed use; main guard is explained as a subdivision of the interior guard, just as are an escort guard or prisoner guard.

Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of any army dictionary prior to this one. There are, however, several that followed, and it is interesting to see the changes made between them.

The military of 1944 judged by its language seems almost quaint, possibly amateur, or even simple; in contrast, by 2017, in the latest version of a military dictionary, the army has become highly bureaucratized, internationalized, and complicated.[4] Nonetheless, it is interesting to note the many dictionary entries, such as civil affairs section, civilian internee, D day, that have “survived” intact (or virtually so) from 1944 to the 2017 dictionary, despite the later dictionary being less stylistically confined.

One aspect that has not survived in contemporary military dictionaries is the male dominance in the military. By today’s standards, the military of 1944 was clearly a male institution (some might argue it still is). All definitions employ “he” or “male,” as for example at ward master, “male nurse or orderly.” It is tempting to wonder how did those highly competent and brave women who served as officers and army nurses and pilots feel about this (assuming, of course, they knew about the dictionary)? One has no way of knowing either how any of the women who worked on staff to compile the dictionary felt about this bias. Today, we can view our attention to it as an indicator of how our perceptions about roles and gender have changed.

The army dictionary laid the groundwork for subsequent Barnhart dictionaries’ attention to technical vocabulary, particularly the Thorndike-Barnhart school dictionaries, the World Book Dictionary, the dictionaries of new English, and most especially the Barnhart Dictionary of Science. Editing the army dictionary was generally recollected by Clarence Barnhart as a satisfying experience; Robert Barnhart, his son, considered it seminal, his father’s first Barnhart dictionary written after being untethered to Scott Foresman and Thorndike.

[1] War Department Technical Manual TM20-205 (1-18-44): TM20-205 Dictionary of U.S. Army Terms 1944;

[2] See Barry L.Vellman’s (Marquette University) article “The ‘Scientific Linguist’ goes to War” concerned with the eminent linguists at Yale who similarly contributed much to the army’s efforts to create a corps of men familiar with very unfamiliar languages. Published in Historiographia Linguistica (35:3), 2008.

[3] Staff members were Maj. Sidney Hotchner, Lt. Golden F. Evans, Lt. John J. Latella, Lt. Howard E. Reed, Cpl. A.W. Read and Pvt. William J. Gedney, J.A. Bowler, Jr., Elizabeth Diez, Natalie B. Frohock, Robert K. Hall, Laura H.V. Kennon, Agnes C.E. Langner, Bernard G. Mattson, Jr., Ellen L. Nelson, N. Bryce Nelson, A. Marion Osborn, Harrison G. Platt, Jr., Theresa Rapolla, Mildred L. Thorndike, Mabel Wilcox, Ella Woodyard. Lt. Evans and Pvt. Gedney were two names that Barnhart recalled in friendly terms and A.W. Read was a distinguished linguist who had a long history with Barnhart; Mattson and the Nelsons were friends and colleagues from Chicago as was Platt, who also worked on some later Barnhart dictionaries.

[4] The writer consulted the 1983 and 2017 dictionaries of military terms (available in the online archive, see note 1). While some entries from the 1944 dictionary can still be found in these newer references in their original form, others are slightly modified, either in form or definition, many with additional definitions. This is to be expected, of course—the armies of 1944 and 2017 being like the proverbial apples and oranges—but some of the difference can be attributed to the less concise and, sometimes, less exact defining style of the 2017 version in particular. The 1983 military dictionary is much closer in style to the Barnhart version.