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When Words Were Worth Fighting Over

In 1961, the publication of Merriam-Webster's <em>Third International Dictionary </em>sparked an uproar with its inclusion of the word "ain't."
Flickr User Greeblie
In 1961, the publication of Merriam-Webster's Third International Dictionary sparked an uproar with its inclusion of the word "ain't."

I have a quibble with the title of David Skinner's new book, The Story of Ain't. In fact, that pariah contraction plays only a supporting role in the story. The book is really an account of one of the oddest episodes in American cultural history, the brouhaha over the appearance of Merriam-Webster's Third International Dictionary in 1961.

At 2,700 pages, Webster's Third was literally a monumental work of scholarship. It was the first American unabridged dictionary in 25 years, and the first to make use of the findings of modern linguistics. But critics pilloried it for what they considered an overly permissive approach to usage. They singled it out for its apparent failure to condemn "ain't," which it noted was used by many cultivated speakers. But they also attacked it for admitting colloquial items like "litterbug" and "wise up," and for illustrating some of its definitions with quotations from down-market authorities like Ethel Merman and Bette Grable.

Those charges were actually way overdone, but the dictionary became a national scandal anyway. Life magazine accused it of abandoning any effort to distinguish between good and bad usage, and The New York Times warned that it would accelerate the deterioration of the language. In a long essay in The New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald wrote that the editors had "made a sop of the solid structure of English." The controversy even made it into a New Yorker cartoon by Alan Dunn. It showed a receptionist at Merriam-Webster telling a visitor, "Sorry, Dr. Gove ain't in."

That would be Philip Babcock Gove, the editor of the Third. Gove was a crusty former Naval officer from New Hampshire, and an unlikely target for vilifications like "saboteur" and "Bolshevik." But it was his fate to become the only American lexicographer whose name could appear in a New Yorker cartoon caption without need of further identification.

Fifty years later, the episode still stands as the Scopes Monkey Trial of American literary culture. And as with that earlier face-off, it isn't clear even now who came out on top, or what it was really about. A lot of people make the mistake of taking the controversy literally, as if it was basically just an argument about words. But debates about language are always proxy wars. They're the dream work of culture, the play within a play, where social anxieties are staged as soap opera. When you hear people keening histrionically about the confusion of "like" and "as," you can safely assume there's something more going on.

David Skinner understands that it takes some cultural background to explain why "so many sane and distinguished persons could see a dictionary as representing the end of the world." True, for a lot of those people, attacking the Third was simply a way of asserting their own claims to refinement.

But serious critics like Dwight Macdonald saw graver matters at stake. To him, the Third stood in for all the forces ranged against art and high culture. It enshrined the kitsch and vulgarity of mass culture and the smug middlebrow consumerism of the Book of the Month Club. And it defended itself with the bloodless jargon of the social sciences.

Our debates about usage still have that melodramatic tenor, but they don't have the same cultural significance. Nobody objects now when a dictionary includes some hip-hop slang or a texting abbreviation. Oxford boasts about adding "wassup" and "BFF"; Merriam counters with "sexting" and "ear worm"; the American Heritage adds "manboob" and "vuvuzela." Nowadays, a dictionary entry is about as hard to come by as a Facebook profile.

Since the time of Webster's Third, people have been framing usage issues as a pseudo-philosophical dispute between "descriptivist" and "prescriptivist" views of language, the one telling it like it is and the other telling it like it ought to be. But actually all dictionaries are in the business of describing the language as it is. What really changes is the conception of the language itself.

Back in Macdonald's era, it was still just possible to think of the English language as a single great stream with its sources in literary tradition, rolling majestically past the evanescent slang and jargon scattered on its banks. That was a glorious fiction even then. But it isn't a credible picture when all the old distinctions have been effaced — between high and low, formal and casual, print and oral, public and private.

Where do you locate the mainstream of English in the flood of words that pours in over all the different screens in our lives? It's not a stream at all, just a limitless ocean of yammer. Even with their modern tools, you have to feel for the lexicographers who are out there trying to sift through it all.

No dictionary will ever again create an uproar like the one over Webster's Third. Yet we still cling to the idea that a dictionary entry confers official recognition on a word. When the OED announced that it would be including texting abbreviations like "LOL," The New York Times praised it for "an affirmation of the plasticity of the English language."

Now, it wasn't as if millions of teenagers had been waiting with their thumbs poised for Oxford's approval. But I like to think of the Times' deference as an acknowledgment that lexicographers still have a cultural role to play. Though I suppose it could also be just an anachronistic holdover from an age when the dictionary spoke with unquestioned authority, before Webster's Third changed everything. After all, even Facebook was once exclusive, too.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.