Ain't Webster's Third grand

October 22, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Fifty years ago, people in the United States had very real fears of the possibility of nuclear annihilation in an exchange of nuclear missiles with the Soviet Union. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought that fear very close. But the year before, Americans had endured a potentially graver threat, not to their physical security, but to their culture. That threat, to the demise of American culture and perhaps to language itself, came from a book.

And the book was a dictionary.

David Skinner, writing in The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (Harper, 349 pages, $26.99), calls the hullabaloo attendant upon the publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961 "one of the most delicious bouts of accusation, blame, and name-calling ever witnessed outside of reality television and the United States Congress."

To understand the outcry over Webster's Third, you have to understand what Webster's Second (1934) was and how Webster's Third differed.

Webster's Second was Authority. It was a dictionary and a miniature encyclopedia, with biographical names and a gazetteer, and other miscellaneous information. More to the point, it was formal. It focused on "platform English," the English of formal writing and orations, the genteel tradition in American letters, and anything informal or slangy was marked as such. People used it to arbitrate disputes about language. 

Webster's Third, under the editorship of Philip Gove, attempted to recognize the shift toward informality strongly characteristic in twentieth-century American English. Influenced by linguistics, he did not aspire to be a law-giver; he simply wanted to tell the truth about the language, about words and meanings as they were widely and actually used, not just by prestige writers. He wanted the dictionary to tell the truth about American English. And because people had been trained in school to think that standard written English was the only correct form and that the label colloquial indicated inferior English, he dispensed with that label. 

But some people feel a strong need for authority, any authority, and some people who already consider themselves authorities do not like to feel themselves challenged. And so, though the dictionary sold very well and was admired by many academic critics, it was savaged in the press. 

Merriam-Webster itself was partly to blame, issuing a press release that trumpeted the inclusion of ain't (which had also been in Webster's Second) and portraying Webster's Third as much more a radical departure in lexicography than it actually was. 

The New York Times denounced the dictionary in editorials and urged readers to hold on to Webster's Second.* Wilson Follett lambasted it in The Atlantic. Dwight Macdonald gave it a lengthy pasting in The New Yorker. Jacques Barzun, in an article Mr. Skinner is restrained enough to call merely "nutty," described Webster's Third as an "attack on The Word." You know, Logos and all that. Webster's Third had succumbed to those anything-goes linguists. It was permissive. It was Bolshevik, not a word to throw around lightly in the America of J. Edgar Hoover. 

Not that Webster's Third was flawless, as even defenders like James Sledd conceded. There was room to criticize its sometimes unwieldy and artificial definitions, its confusing multiplication of pronunciations, its disinclination to use capital letters, and it did not offer the perplexed the thoroughgoing advice on usage that they sought. But it was a substantial feat of lexicography and a remarkably thorough picture of the American language at mid-century. The battered Webster's Third in The Sun's newsroom, which I still have occasion to consult, doesn't seem to have anything terribly bolshy about it. 

Mr. Skinner, leaning a little on Herbert C. Morton's 1994 account, The Story of Webster's Third,** takes an interesting approach, attempting to trace American English and attitudes toward it in an arc through the twentieth century, by focusing on the figures involved in Merriam-Webster and the controversy over the third edition. There are pluses and minuses to this. 

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