'The Story of Ain't' defines 'the most controversial dictionary ever published'

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David Skinner has a great title in "The Story of Ain't."

His subtitle, however, gives away too much of the game: "America, Its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published." The book he's referring to is the Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961.

Unfortunately, being the "most controversial dictionary" is like being the most gregarious Norwegian bachelor farmer. The bar hasn't been set very high.

By David Skinner
Harper ($26.99).

"The Story of Ain't" has its roots in a story Mr. Skinner wrote for Humanities magazine about another book. That work was Herbert C. Morton's "The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and its Critics."

Philip Gove, the editor of the dictionary, is a character worthy of a magazine story. But one book about him may have been enough. Mr. Skinner faces a tough task when he places Gove at the center of his book.

Having access to Gove's personal papers, Mr. Skinner finds persuasive evidence that the academic-turned-lexicographer wanted to shake up the sedate world of dictionary publishing. Gove's goal's was to produce a modern dictionary that emphasized current usage and recent linguistic discoveries rather than one that prescribed outdated, often illogical rules.

To his critics, that made Gove a Bolshevik anarchist. He was viewed by his foes as someone determined to destroy both Western culture and American English by substituting the opinions of the masses for the traditions of the cultured. The extreme reaction of The New York Times editorial board to the Webster's Third loose standards for definition, usage and pronunciation calls to mind what is often called Sayre's Law of debate: "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the importance of the issue at stake."

What conservative critics such as Dwight Macdonald feared in Webster's Third was the weakening of high-culture authority represented by Webster's Second, published in 1934. Macdonald, the Christopher Hitchens of his era, serves as foil to Gove. Macdonald was both prolific and dogmatic, although his dogmas changed dramatically over the decades. While working for The New Yorker, Macdonald wrote a piece for the Ford Foundation criticizing his current employer. That story, Mr. Skinner writes, is "not to be confused with an essay he wrote criticizing the Ford Foundation in the New Yorker."

By 1961, Macdonald, a former Marxist, had moved far right and led the language conservatives who trashed Webster's Third for a multitude of sins. Despite the passions the new dictionary engendered, Mr. Skinner also demonstrates that Webster's Third was not that radically different from its Depression-era predecessor.

Mr. Skinner assigns part of the blame on Gove for the dictionary's reception. The dictionary's editor had approved a press release that emphasized new respect for the classic American colloquialism -- the word "ain't."

"The Story of Ain't" seems padded out by a description of the machinations of James Parton. Parton, the president of American Heritage Publishing, made an unsuccessful run at acquiring G.& C. Merriam Co., the publisher of Webster's Third. Parton had worked to stoke conservative outrage over the new dictionary. He hoped that anger would translate into poor sales and persuade Merriam stockholders to consider his hostile takeover. Since sales were healthy and Merriam stockholder were loyal, Parton's effort came to naught.

Parton's failed attempt to gain control of Merriam was followed by American Heritage producing its own more conservative word book. Skinner writes that American Heritage's 1964 traditionalist work became known as the "Goldwater Dictionary." It was nicknamed after the right-wing Republican candidate for president that year.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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