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The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published Hardcover – October 9, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“An immensely entertaining history…Skinner manages to transform this somewhat arcane lexicographical dispute into a real page turner…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.” (Associated Press)

“An engrossing account of the continuing ruckus over Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.” (New York Times Book Review)

“Mr. Skinner does a fine job detailing the controversy that greeted Webster’s Third, but he is even stronger when describing the internal politics at Merriam and the mechanics of revising a dictionary.” (Wall Street Journal)

“…spry cultural history” (Harper's)

“[Skinner] provides well-argued critiques of the orthodoxies that define language studies” (New York Times)

“A highly entertaining, thoughtful new book.” (Boston Globe)

“Skinner is good on the development of 20th-century linguistics and on the interplay between America’s language and its sense of itself.” (Financial Times)

“…comprehensive and evenhanded, and written in a clear and jaunty style…What in less skilled hands might have been arid and parochial in David Skinner’s becomes a lively account of a subject of interest to anyone concerned about the English language in America.” (Weekly Standard)

“Mr. Skinner weaves a true tale fascinating not just to linguists and lexicographers, but to anyone interested in the evolution of our language during a critical period in America’s History.” (New York Journal of Books)

“Skinner has written an entertaining book about a controversy that still lingers and throws light on how emotional our ties to language are….a funny and informative account.” (Columbus Dispatch)

“...delightful new book on lexicography…Skinner leaves no doubt as to the importance of Webster’s Third as the game-changer in dictionary standards and the impetus for an American cultural metamorphosis.” (Shelf Awareness)

The Story of Ain’t is a book about words, the national character, and the inevitability of change. And it’s so fun, you might not even realize that you’re joining the debate.” (Hillsdale Collegian)

“Skinner…offers a highly entertaining and intelligent re-creation of events surrounding the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary by G. & C. Merriam…a rich and absorbing exploration of the changing standards in American language and culture.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

“A compelling reminder of the cultural significance of words and word-making.” (Booklist (starred review))

“A fascinating, highly entertaining cultural history that will enchant an audience beyond word nerds....Skinner nimbly, concisely--and without academic dryness--traces the everyday changes that shaped what came out of Americans’ mouths and into our dictionaries.” (BookPage)

“It takes true brilliance to lift the arid tellings of lexicographic fussing into the readable realm of the thriller and the bodice-ripper. With his riveting account…David Skinner has done precisely this, taking a fine story and honing it to popular perfection.” (Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlantic)

“The flap over Webster’s Third in 1961 was a never-to-be-repeated episode in American cultural history…. David Skinner tells it brilliantly…as he brings to life the odd cast of characters who played a role in the affair.” (Geoffrey Nunberg, University of California at Berkeley, emeritus chair of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, language commentator, "Fresh Air," NPR)

“A fascinating account of a major paradigm shift in the American language, when a group of bold lexicographers decided to tell it like it is and causing a huge cultural rumpus. This is more than just a story about a new edition of a dictionary.” (Christopher Buckley, New York Times bestselling author of They Eat Puppies, Don't They? and Thank You for Smoking)

“David Skinner tells the tale of a great battle in the 1960s War Between the Real and the Ideal. It was a conflict with realists laying claim to idealism and idealists asserting realism and vice versa. Skinner makes it all clear.” (P.J. O'Rourke, New York Times bestselling author of Holidays in Heck and Don't Vote--It Just Encourages)

“A cultural story as much as a linguistic one, teeming with colorful characters and big ideas, The Story of Ain’t is a must read for anybody who loves language.” (Toby Lester, author of Da Vinci's Ghost and The Fourth Part of the World)

From the Back Cover

Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by the editor Philip Gove, Webster's Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating "artificial notions of correctness," basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary's revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called "the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars." Editors and scholars howled for Gove's blood, calling him an enemy of clear thinking, a great relativist who was trying to sweep the English language into chaos. Critics bayed at the dictionary's permissive handling of ain't. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the dictionary's scientific approach to language and its abandonment of the old standard of usage represented the unraveling of civilization.

Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain't describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (October 9, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062027468
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062027467
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #316,246 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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.Read more ›
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Weeks on October 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a book about the controversy of publicity roused by "Webster's Third." This is the edition that made the transition from showing proper English use, to simply representing current usage. The controversy became a battle in the "Culture War" of its time. Opponents of the new edition (many of whom had never read it) clamored about the deterioration of intellectual standards. Proponents vaunted the "scientific" value of the new edition.

For some, the controversy may seem minor. Who cares what's the ideology of a dictionary -- as long as it tells us what words mean? But for others -- either on the "right" or the "left" of the issue -- the issue remains paramount. The conversation may have moved away from "Webster's Third," but the essence of the controversy remains. We encounter it still in the media frenzies that surround teaching "Ebonics" in public school, the debate over cultural (il)literacy, and more generally, the discussion about the alleged "dumbing" of America.

Skinner never really weighs in on the controversy -- it seems he's content to document it. So readers are left to decide for themselves whether a dictionary should teach how words should be used, or more simply how they are already used. Either way, the book remains timely.

Those interested in "proper english" really should also own a copy of Fowler's utter classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford Language Classics). And if you relish the play of words, look at THE Book of Word Games: Parlett's Guide to 150 Great and Quick-to-Learn Word Games.

Hopefully this review was helpful.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Fezziwig on January 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a detailed and well-documented account of the controversy over the publication in 1961 of the third edition of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language (Webster's 3rd). It would replace the second edition published in 1934 (Webster's 2nd). I avoid describing Skinner's book as a "scholarly account," not because of any deficiency I found in his book, but because it might make the book sound dull and so suffused in detail as to discourage the average lay reader. As it is, I imagine that the potential audience for any book about the development of a dictionary to be a small one. In the case of this book, that would be a shame. Everyone who takes an interest in reading, words, and the power of words should find this story entrancing. Skinner describes an almost unbelievably negative reaction to the content of this new dictionary by the Merriam-Webster company. Some of the most influential voices in America (New York Times and other big-city papers, Life magazine and other popular magazines, powerful organizations like the American Bar Association, and many public intellectuals and university libraries) condemned the new edition of Webster's in often hyperbolic terms as a corrupting influence on American life, culture, and politics.

To help us understand the basis for this negative reaction to what became known as Webster's 3rd, Skinner takes us back a half century to the production of its predecessor, Webster's 2nd. The second edition of Webster's famous dictionary was published in 1934.
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