History of dictionary is surprisingly entertaining

The Story of Ain't: America, Its language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary ever Published, by David Skinner (Harper, 368 pages, $27)
The Story of Ain't: America, Its language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary ever Published, by David Skinner (Harper, 368 pages, $27)

David Skin­ner’s The Story of Ain’t is an im­mensely en­ter­tain­ing his­tory of a dic­tio­nary whose ap­pear­ance in 1961 sent crit­ics over the edge. “Lit­er­ary an­ar­chy,” "sab­o­tage,” "di­sas­ter,” "ca­lam­ity” — these were just a few of the ep­i­thets hurled at Web­ster’s Third New In­ter­na­tional Dic­tio­n­ary. More than half a cen­tury later, it may be hard to un­der­stand how mere printed mat­ter could get folks so worked up. But Skin­ner, the ed­i­tor of Human­i­ties mag­a­zine, man­ages to trans­form this some­what ar­cane lex­i­co­graph­i­cal dis­pute into a real page turner.

The story be­gins in 1934 with a black-tie din­ner cel­e­brat­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of Web­ster’s Second, a 17-pound tome crammed with all the in­for­ma­tion a well-bred per­son of that time might need to know. Oddly, that in­cluded lists of dog breeds and bi­og­ra­phies of Roman or­a­tors.

By 1961, of course, that wasn’t nearly enough. The coun­try had en­dured a de­pres­sion and world war and wit­nessed the rise of tele­vi­sion and mov­ies, the aero­space in­dus­try, in­ter­state high­way sys­tem, civil rights move­ment, baby boom gen­er­a­tion, rock ‘n’ roll, and more.

That meant lots of new words had to be in the up­dated edi­tion, in­clud­ing bal­lis­tic mis­sile, de­seg­re­ga­tion, hous­ing de­vel­op­ment, Lit­tle League, McCarthy­ism, po­ny­tail, and Zen. And when it came to us­age, Web­ster’s Third wasn’t con­tent to only quote from the likes of Dryden and Shake­speare — in came pithy snip­pets from movie stars, Mickey Spil­l­ane, even a for­mer madam.

To make room for the new, Edi­tor-in-Chief Phi­lip Gove de­cided that a good chunk of the old had to go, in­clud­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dic ma­terial that ar­gu­ably didn’t be­long there in the first place.

What proved most con­tro­ver­sial, how­ever, was his over­arch­ing ed­i­to­rial phi­los­o­phy that the best a dic­tio­nary could do was to faith­fully record the lan­guage as it was spo­ken.

 If that meant ig­nor­ing the some­times ar­chaic, elit­ist, and mor­al­iz­ing pre­scrip­tions of the gram­mar cops, well then, so be it.

Gove’s po­si­tion, re­flect­ing de­cades of well-es­tab­lished lin­guis­tic re­search, out­raged the so-called pre­scrip­tiv­ists, who thought Web­ster’s Third rep­re­sented per­mis­sive­ness run amok.

Skin­ner ably and amus­ingly cap­tures the hys­ter­i­cal tone of the bit­ter pub­lic quar­rel while sug­gest­ing that it fore­shad­owed many of the ar­gu­ments over val­ues and stan­dards that we’re still fight­ing about to­day.