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The Story of Ain't : America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published
by David Skinner


Overview -

"It takes true brilliance to lift the arid tellings of lexicographic fussing into the readable realm of the thriller and the bodice-ripper....David Skinner has done precisely this, taking a fine story and honing it to popular perfection."
--Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman

The Story of Ain't by David Skinner is the captivating true chronicle of the creation of Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961, the most controversial dictionary ever published.  Read more...


 
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More About The Story of Ain't by David Skinner
 
 
 
Overview

"It takes true brilliance to lift the arid tellings of lexicographic fussing into the readable realm of the thriller and the bodice-ripper....David Skinner has done precisely this, taking a fine story and honing it to popular perfection."
--Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman

The Story of Ain't by David Skinner is the captivating true chronicle of the creation of Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961, the most controversial dictionary ever published. Skinner's surprising and engaging, erudite and witty account will enthrall fans of Winchester's The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, and The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, as it explores a culture in transition and the brilliant, colorful individuals behind it. The Story of Ain't is a smart, often outrageous, and altogether remarkable tale of how egos, infighting, and controversy shaped one of America's most authoritative language texts, sparking a furious language debate that the late, great author David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) once called "the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars."


 
Details
  • ISBN-13: 9780062027467
  • ISBN-10: 0062027468
  • Publisher: HarperTorch
  • Publish Date: October 2012
  • Page Count: 349
  • Dimensions: 9.34 x 6.34 x 1.39 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.15 pounds


Related Categories

Books > History > United States - 20th Century
Books > Literary Criticism > Books & Reading
Books > Reference > Dictionaries - General

 
Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2012-05-21
  • Reviewer: Staff

Humanities editor Skinner, who is on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, offers a highly entertaining and intelligent re-creation of events surrounding the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary by G. & C. Merriam. The dictionary, assembled at a cost of .5 million, included a press release from Merriam’s president Gordon J. Gallan, which said the work contained “an avalanche of bewildering new verbal concepts.” The new dictionary embraced informal English in 450,000 total entries, including 100,000 new words, including clunk (from Mickey Spillane), cool (from jazz), and snafu (from WWII). Editor Philip Gove’s break with tradition, the refusal to distinguish between good language and bad, outraged academics and editorial writers, setting in motion what Skinner calls “the single greatest language controversy in American history.” A Chicago Tribune headline announced “Saying Ain’t Ain’t Wrong.” Life labeled Webster’s Third “a non-word deluge,” and it was vilified as “literary anarchy.” To probe why it triggered such volcanic eruptions, Skinner shows how Gove sought to construct a modern, linguistically rigorous dictionary and details how Dwight Macdonald and other critics sought to destroy it. The result is a rich and absorbing exploration of the changing standards in American language and culture. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn Agency. (Oct.)

 
BookPage Reviews

An offensive four-letter word

When Merriam-Webster announced the new words included in its 2012 Collegiate Dictionary—entries that included “sexting” and “energy drink”—the news was greeted quietly, perhaps because most of us understand how language evolves. Slang makes its way to grandparents; jargon becomes commonplace. Or maybe we’ve exhausted our anger.

Tolerance was in short supply 51 years ago when Webster’s Third New International Dictionary caused the intellectual, journalistic and academic worlds to go nuts over one little word—and a change in the dictionary’s philosophy. David Skinner traces the evolution of this language battle in The Story of Ain’t, a fascinating, highly entertaining cultural history that will enchant an audience beyond word nerds.

Webster’s Third hit shelves in 1961, 27 years after the release of Webster’s Second. In the intervening years, World War II, pop culture and other changes had broadened the language. Plus, many researchers had concluded that defining the “right way” to speak English was, at best, an elusive concept.

Editor Philip Gove decided that Webster’s, the leading dictionary of the day, would fit these less formal times. He updated the literary references, shortened the definitions and steered the book away from its encyclopedic past. Even the pronunciation key was dumped. The response to this new approach was met with an anger that rose to pitchfork-carrying levels when the press release for the new dictionary focused on the premiere of “ain’t.” The sloppily prepared release portrayed the word as a staple of educational speakers, neglecting to mention that “a substandard label was attached” to the word in the Webster’s Third entry.

Despite the title, the scandal over “ain’t” is not the book’s best part. It’s the way in which Skinner nimbly, concisely—and without academic dryness—traces the everyday changes that shaped what came out of Americans’ mouths and into our dictionaries. Ain’t that something?

 
BAM Customer Reviews