Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by the editor Philip Gove, Webster's Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating "artificial notions of correctness," basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken.Read more...
Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by the editor Philip Gove, Webster's Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating "artificial notions of correctness," basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary's revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called "the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars." Editors and scholars howled for Gove's blood, calling him an enemy of clear thinking, a great relativist who was trying to sweep the English language into chaos. Critics bayed at the dictionary's permissive handling of ain't. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the dictionary's scientific approach to language and its abandonment of the old standard of usage represented the unraveling of civilization.
Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain't describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.
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.)
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?