To many, the dictionary is that most ominous of omnibuses (or omnibi?) to which we refer hastily for spelling or pronunciation - or to check the plural of omnibus. We put it on a pedestal out of respect, but also to keep our distance. Dictionaries have their place, we admit, and that more often than not is on the shelf, enlisted as bookends to support the paperbacks that come and go.
In recent years lexicographers have fought this image, saying, in the words of one ad, ''Dictionaries are where words live.'' Well, it turns out dictionaries reflect when words die as well. And since space remains constant - for collegiate editions, anyway - keeping track of what words come in and go out gives us a sort of compendium of the national consciousness.
What does it say about our preoccupations and attitudes, one might ask, that the following words - not to be found in the 1969 American Heritage Dictionary - elbowed their way into the first major revision published last fall: upmanship, uptempo, fed up, breaking point, out and outer, railroading, group therapy, last ditch, last minute, last straw, ground zero, breast beating. It's harder to find the ones they replaced, but four that are gone are cartwright, carpenter moth, bread line, and the Marx Brothers.
It's OK, you might say, that we're not talking so much these days about an artisan who makes carts. But ''ground zero'' (target of a missile or bomb) has obliterated the kindly carpenter moth without so much as a pushed button? Could it be that the people who once merely stood in bread lines are now in group therapy? The Marx Brothers are out? No wonder everyone's beating his breast.
Who are these people, these ivory-tower lexicographers, who are telling us what words are more important than others, dreaming up new words, changing our language?
It's us. The dictionary merely reflects what's being said and written out there in languageland - in this case, the back roads, hills, and cities of America. And American Heritage Dictionary's answer to the question ''Who says what this word means, how it should be used?'' is . . . everyone.
AHD has its own 174-member Usage Panel waiting in the wings to rule on disputes. Language use, after all, is art, not science. And so this distinguished group gives views on such issues as the distinctions between ''shall'' and ''will,'' ''imply'' and ''infer,'' and ''between you and me'' and ''between you and I.''
If you disagree with their findings on usage, rest assured that even this blue-ribbon panel of historians, editors, and journalists disagree (among? between?) themselves.