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The War of Words



Rob Hardy


What is the job of a dictionary? For most of us a dictionary is a tool; you see an unfamiliar word (or sometimes you want to learn about a familiar one), and you look it up to find the meaning. Perhaps because of the huge loom of language over every aspect of our lives and our relationships with others, dictionaries are felt to have an importance and power beyond just being big reference books. The philosophy of a dictionary's purpose was in dispute even in the mind of the lexicographer who composed the first great English dictionary, Samuel Johnson. Johnson thought as he began his monumental task that he would improve the way people used language; he not only would show words used in the right way, his illustrative quotations (one of the important hallmarks of his great work) would show them being used in the best way, by the choicest writers. As he toiled away at his big book, however, he began to realize that he could not fix or form the language; his dictionary would merely register how the language is used. The issue is not settled, and after all these centuries, it probably isn't going to be, but it sparked a particularly sharp (even nasty) controversy when in 1961 Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language was published, raising loud denunciations and some measured praise. The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (Harper) by David Skinner tells comprehensively how Webster's Third came to be and how it came to cause such a storm among intellectuals, who took their positions with utmost seriousness. It might seem a perfect tempest in a teapot, but Skinner has written an entertaining book about a controversy that still lingers and throws light on how emotional our ties to language are. 




The ostensible purpose of Webster's Third was to replace Webster's Second, which had been published in 1934. Naturally much had changed; Skinner devotes a chapter to merely some of the additions needed because of World War Two, and many are not technical terms or acronyms. For instance, while the phrase "around the clock" had been used for a century, the shorter "round-the-clock" was a coinage deliberately made to describe the bombing schedule the Allies were going to inflict upon Germany. The Second had an air of dated middle-class conventionalism; an illustrative quotation for "limp" was "as in a limp cravat." It also showed pronunciations that were more like those from the British stage than from Americans across the country. 




Webster's Third, however, would not be an ordinary dictionary update. The man who became editor, Phillip Gove, wanted a new way of doing things. The Third would do away with trying to be an encyclopedia, for instance; charts and lists of English royalty would be out. It would not try to be an atlas, nor would it include every important character in Western literature. These were, however, relatively superficial changes. Gove represented a lexical philosophy stemming from the new views of scientific linguists. Written language may be important, this view said, but the language of the new dictionary would be the spoken language. People were using English differently, perhaps because of World War Two's democratizing effects. It had been considered courteous to speak to strangers in formal English and thus show how the speaker valued their importance; by the 1950s, speakers addressed strangers to show the same value, but found that doing it with friendly, intimate terms was just as effective. How people spoke the language was the language, and there was no scientific reason to think that certain words or phrases were wrong; correctness depended merely upon usage. 




The usage would be measured by speakers of the language, and thus the dictionary would tend to get its citations of usage from Walter Winchell, Mickey Spillane, or Billy Graham. Tennyson and Pope might get in, but there would be less emphasis on literature. There was, however, literary basis for the emphasis on spoken English as Americans did it. Henry James decried the barbarisms that Americans were imposing on the language as they spoke it. Mark Twain, on the other hand, took the American tradition of dialectical humor and championed it into incomparable art. When H. L. Mencken wrote The American Language, he was decidedly on the side of Twain, and he loved the "racy" language inventions like "hoodlum" or "light out."  




One of Gove's problems was that many people look into a dictionary and if they find a word there, they feel that it has some sort of official sanction; his philosophy was that he was showing how the language was used, but not giving any sort of approval to the uses thereby shown. Those who write professionally may resist change in language, and much of the fun in this book is reading how shocked they were to think (erroneously, as it turns out) that the Third would not chastise, for instance, the use of "ain't." The Third was not the first dictionary to list the troublesome word; people had been finding it and using its inclusion ("You see? It is right there in the dictionary after all!") as a justification for its use for years. The furor over the Third was certainly not confined to its treatment of "ain't," but that is where the problems began, and they were largely self-inflicted. In the initial publicity for the dictionary (and how such publicity happens is one of the stories here), there was a jovial news release approved by the President of Merriam, who was a businessman but not a lexicographer. The news release cited some of the new words in the dictionary, but it abbreviated how the dictionary treated "ain't," and suggested that the nasty word now finally had official approval. In actuality, the editors had properly listed and defined the word (after all, millions used it), but they had gone far from defending it, calling it "substandard" and "disapproved of by many."  




This was the start of a newspaper and magazine skirmish about the dictionary, which was denounced as not only unscientific but as a grab for power for the left. It was described as "the longest political pamphlet ever." Newspaper editors had a heyday with headlines like "Ain't Nothing Wrong With the Use of Ain't," and columnists not only fretted over inclusion of that blighted word but by the inclusion of others like "upsurge" or "finalize." As Skinner points out, however, such words were in Webster's Second and caused no furious editorials. He pays particular attention to a famous coruscating evaluation in The New Yorker by Dwight MacDonald, who inveighed against the Third as symbolic of how popular middlebrow culture was taking over what ought to be America's intellectual engines. The dictionary, Skinner writes, "was denounced in one newspaper, magazine, and trade publication after another, and the condemnation grew ever more dark, thunderous, and weird."  




It is not a weakness that the controversy, taken with vendetta-like seriousness at the time but after all these years appearing to be much ado over almost nothing, comes only in the final chapters of the book. Skinner pays a lot of attention to all the personalities involved, and to the drudgery of making a dictionary. Procedures of compiling the dictionary were codified in dense "Black Books" which were highly confidential; if they left the building, they might get into the hands of unscrupulous competitors (and the dictionary business is sometimes savagely competitive). "The editorial offices at Merriam were always quiet," Skinner writes. "Production was constant, as the only machines in use whirred away silently in the heads of Merriam staff. Oral communication was reduced to a minimum. To interrupt a fellow editor, you handed him or her a note saying you needed to talk. The two of you then met in the hallway." That the quiet drudgery resulted in a firestorm fifty years ago makes this a funny and informative account. 




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