Ain't Webster's Third grand

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. 

Mr. Skinner is a magazine writer, and his book has forty short chapters that read like magazine articles, clear, easy to go through, and sometimes breezy. Some of them read like potted history or filler. If you don't know much about H.L. Mencken's campaign for recognition of a distinctively American English, Mr. Skinner's chapter on him won't tell you much more than a morsel. I'm not sure that Dwight Macdonald's veering political convictions over the decades tell us much that we need to know. He is, however, good about the lesser-known personalities at Merriam-Webster and the company ethos. It's quite a readable book, and you may find your jaw sagging a little as you read his accounts of the hysterical attacks on the dictionary and its chief lexicographer. 

I wish that he had not stopped short. He does describe the attempts by which James Parton, publisher of American Heritage, connived to take over Merriam-Webster and, failing that, how he founded his own American Heritage Dictionary, boasting the advice on usage from a panel of notables, many of whom had attacked Webster's Third

But there is, as Paul Harvey always said, The Rest of the Story. People crave authority about language, which is what the American Heritage notables were supposed to cough up. But they couldn't agree among themselves. The dictionary had to settle for registering their votes on usage, and readers still had to make up their own minds. And now, deliciously, the chair of the venerable Usage Panel in the fifth edition (quite an excellent dictionary), is Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University, one of the very tribe of language relativists. And his predecessor was the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. The kind of lexicography that Philip Gove represented, seeking to find out how people actually speak and write the language, and telling the truth about it, remains dominant to this day.

If you, too, crave authority, wishing to get reliable advice about speaking and writing English, you still have available Bryan Garner, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and, well, modesty forbids. 


Disclosure: As regular readers of this blog are aware, I have made the acquaintance since starting it of a number of lexicographers and linguists, from whom I have learned a great deal and whom I hold in highest admiration and respect. 


*There are, in fact, people so fatuous as to claim to prefer Webster's Second today. I'm talking about you, Clark Elder Morrow

**An odd book. It has a section of biographical information about Philip Gove, a section on Merriam-Webster's lexicographical and business practices, and an account of the controversy, as if the controversy itself were not enough matter for a book. 


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