The Story of Ain’t

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John F
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The Story of Ain’t

Post by John F » Sun Nov 04, 2012 1:02 am

The publishing company I worked for, W.W. Norton, continued to use Webster's 2nd unabridged dictionary as the basis of its copyediting long after Webster's 3rd appeared. A symptom of the controversy mentioned in the subtitle.


November 2, 2012
What Everyone Was Saying
By PATRICIA T. O’CONNER

THE STORY OF AIN’T: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published
By David Skinner
349 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.

Dictionary making has always been a much misunderstood art. The lexicographer’s job is to capture the language as people use it and understand it. But most people who go to a dictionary don’t care about common usage. They want to know what’s right.

This conflict is at the heart of “The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.” David Skinner, the editor of Humanities magazine, revisits the brouhaha that greeted the most misunderstood dictionary of all time, Webster’s Third New International.

The year was 1961, and the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Mass., long a symbol of donnish respectability, had just announced a successor to the celebrated but rapidly aging dictionary popularly known as Webster’s Second, a 17-pound behemoth first published in 1934.

It was about time. A lot had happened to English since the early ’30s, including a world war and most of the New Deal. Also television, the civil rights movement, super­highways, Dr. Spock, rock ’n’ roll, the Bomb, rocket science, the cold war, Superman and the Kinsey reports. New words — and new meanings of old ones — were everywhere, like “astronaut,” “beatnik,” “den mother” and “satellite.” Into Webster’s Third they went.

New editions were nothing out of the ordinary. Merriam had been regularly overhauling its big “unabridged” dictionaries since the 19th century. But the response to Webster’s Third was like nothing the publisher had ever seen. The press more or less ripped it to shreds. News articles, reviews and editorials excoriated the dictionary and heaped abuse on its editor in chief, Philip Gove. Even the literati piled on, elevating the old Webster’s Second to sainthood.

Why the uproar? This book’s title hints at one of the reasons. Merriam hired a public relations firm to make sure the new dictionary got the attention it deserved. Well, attention it got. A tone-deaf and error-riddled press release breathlessly announced that “ ‘ain’t’ gets official recognition at last.”

This was a colossal blunder. Far from endorsing “ain’t,” Webster’s Third said it was “disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech.” And the word was not new to lexicography, as the press release implied. It had appeared in many dictionaries before, including Webster’s Second.

But the damage was done. “By blurring the distinction between a word’s appearance in the dictionary and its status as standard English,” Skinner writes, “the press release invited critics to blame Webster’s Third for ‘recognizing’ every last silly, awkward, dialectal, jargonish or slang word it provided an entry for.”

Webster’s Third did have admirers in the popular press, in scholarly journals and in British newspapers. But the critics — notably Dwight Macdonald in The New Yorker and an apoplectic Wilson Follett in The Atlantic — simply outshouted the defense.

Skinner ably dissects the criticism to reveal a long litany of mistakes. Journalists combed the dictionary for hot-button words to savage, but many of the offenders (like “orientate,” “finalize,” “irregardless” and “normalcy”) weren’t new. The critics, including some from this newspaper, could have found them in their beloved Webster’s Second if they’d bothered to look. Instead, they wailed that the fortress had fallen to the barbarians.

Often, writers “simply failed to examine the entries they had complained about,” Skinner says. For example, Webster’s Third, like Webster’s Second, used cross-references, printed in small capital letters, for purposes of comparison. So the entry for “infer” said “compare IMPLY.” But critics misinterpreted these cross-­references as meaning that pairs like “imply” and “infer,” “enormity” and “enormousness” were now synonyms.

Some features of the new dictionary were legitimate subjects of debate. The system of usage labels, those little badges of ignominy, riled many traditionalists, since it no longer included outright condemnations like “erroneous,” “illiterate” and “vulgar.” Where necessary, there was an explanatory note like “usu. considered vulgar.” The predominant labels were “nonstandard” and “substandard,” and the “slang” label was used more sparingly than before. What the editors considered standard English included both formal and informal usages, and carried no label. This system was less judgmental than the old one. It relied more on the judgment of the dictionary user, who perhaps might have welcomed a little more guidance.

Fifty years later the story is still engrossing, though Skinner’s treatment often feels disjointed. His account, while thorough, jumps back and forth between developments in Springfield and what’s happening in the careers of the naysayers. And he tells us more about Dwight Macdonald and the gang at Partisan Review than we need to know. Anyone wanting a broad view of the fracas should also read Herbert C. Morton’s book “The Story of Webster’s Third: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics” (1994).

Incredibly, the old errors lived on for years. In an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 2001, David Foster Wallace recycled many of the previous critics’ mistakes — evidently without actually looking at the dictionary — and perpetrated a howler of his own. He misattributed a quote by Philip Gove to “Gove’s now classic introduction to Webster’s Third.” The words were nowhere in the dictionary; they came from an article Gove had written for a company newsletter. Wallace could have made such a slip only by cribbing (incorrectly, yet) from Macdonald’s review, which quoted Gove quoting a study published in 1952.

The lesson? You can always look it up.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/books ... inner.html
John Francis

jbuck919
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Re: The Story of Ain’t

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Nov 04, 2012 4:36 pm

The only thing I can think of is the time when I was a young boy and my father disallowed "booze" as a Scrabble word. He thought the rules did not allow slang (actually it is only informal), but guilt in there, I think. Of course, in the Catholic Douai-Rheims Bible the name for Boaz, Ruth's husband, is Booz (still pronounced boh-ahz), but then, proper names really aren't allowed in Scrabble.

OK, I'm out of here. :)

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John F
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Re: The Story of Ain’t

Post by John F » Sun Nov 04, 2012 6:11 pm

Serious Scrabble players use a specific dictionary, like the American Heritage, to resolve what words are allowed. If the word is in the dictionary and isn't a proper noun, it's OK. I don't suppose many use Webster's Unabridged for this, or even own it.
John Francis

jbuck919
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Re: The Story of Ain’t

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Nov 04, 2012 9:28 pm

John F wrote:Serious Scrabble players use a specific dictionary, like the American Heritage, to resolve what words are allowed. If the word is in the dictionary and isn't a proper noun, it's OK. I don't suppose many use Webster's Unabridged for this, or even own it.
Now you've awoken another memory, since I brought the then new (and excellent) American Heritage Dictionary with me to college, and caused uproarious laughter among my dorm neighbors as they perused the then novel formal definition of the f word ("to create an undesirable situation [usually followed by 'up']" or something like that). Sometimes from the behavior you'd never guess where I went to college.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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