15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The "Ain't" Controversy Is Still Timely
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...
Published 14 months ago by Timothy Weeks
3.0 out of 5 stars Word dynamics more interesting than the people
The book shines when it discusses the evolution of words through time, and various controversies about particular content in the dictionaries. Yes, that includes "ain't" although that subject is far from front and center after all. I did not realize that dictionaries were such a big deal back then, even as someone with several and someone who enjoys the regular...
Published 3 months ago by T. Burket
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The "Ain't" Controversy Is Still Timely,
This review is from: The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (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.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The War of Words,
This review is from: The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (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.
_Webster's Third_ would not be an ordinary dictionary update. How people spoke the language was the language, and there was no scientific reason to think that certain words or phrases were wrong; correctness depended merely upon usage. The usage would be measured by speakers of the language, and thus the dictionary would tend to get its citations of usage from Walter Winchell, Mickey Spillane, or Billy Graham. Tennyson and Pope might get in, but there would be less emphasis on literature. The _Third_ was not the first dictionary to list the troublesome "ain't"; people had been finding it and using its inclusion ("You see? It is right there in the dictionary after all!") as a justification for its use for years. The furor over the _Third_ was certainly not confined to its treatment of "ain't," but that is where the problems began, resulting in a newspaper and magazine skirmish about the dictionary, which was denounced as not only unscientific but as a grab for power for the left. It was described as "the longest political pamphlet ever." Newspaper editors had a heyday with headlines like "Ain't Nothing Wrong With the Use of Ain't," and columnists not only fretted over inclusion of that blighted word but by the inclusion of others like "upsurge" or "finalize." As Skinner points out, however, such words were in _Webster's Second_ and caused no furious editorials. He pays particular attention to a famous coruscating evaluation in _The New Yorker_ by Dwight MacDonald, who inveighed against the _Third_ as symbolic of how popular middlebrow culture was taking over what ought to be America's intellectual engines. The dictionary, Skinner writes, "was denounced in one newspaper, magazine, and trade publication after another, and the condemnation grew ever more dark, thunderous, and weird."
It is not a weakness that the controversy, taken with vendetta-like seriousness at the time but after all these years appearing to be much ado over almost nothing, comes only in the final chapters of the book. Skinner pays a lot of attention to all the personalities involved, and to the drudgery of making a dictionary. Procedures of compiling the dictionary were codified in dense "Black Books" which were highly confidential; if they left the building, they might get into the hands of unscrupulous competitors (and the dictionary business is sometimes savagely competitive). "The editorial offices at Merriam were always quiet," Skinner writes. "Production was constant, as the only machines in use whirred away silently in the heads of Merriam staff. Oral communication was reduced to a minimum. To interrupt a fellow editor, you handed him or her a note saying you needed to talk. The two of you then met in the hallway." That the quiet drudgery resulted in a firestorm fifty years ago makes this a funny and informative account.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How a dictionary drove some people crazy,
This review is from: The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (Hardcover)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. Its editors produced this much-admired work without questioning a number of assumptions about what a dictionary should be: especially, without questioning the notion that a dictionary should be an authoritative source of information about the meaning and pronunciation of words. Later, this attitude would be described as prescriptive, ie, the dictionary should prescribe the correct use of words in the English language. It would be the final authority in any disputes about how to say or use in writing any word.
What happened between 1934 and 1961? In a word, change. Actually, of course, change had been taking place before 1934, but Webster's 2nd seemed to ignore that fact. The changes taking place in American society from the end of the Civil War and into the 20th Century and beyond were accelerating at a rapid pace. Changes in technology, in social mores, in politics, and daily life were affecting the American language. New words were being added, old ones became extinct, and more importantly the meanings of words and even their pronunciations were changing as Americans began using new media and as they became more mobile.
Something else, more subtle, was changing too: the way people thought. As democracy expanded and as science and technology increasingly affected daily life, the voices of authority were eroding, and people were beginning to ask for reasons to accept stated opinions, not only about words, but about everything. Inevitably the scientific frame of mind would change language and words. Linguistics, the scientific study of language was already in existence in 1934, but it would not begin to affect dictionary making until the old language experts, who were products of a Victorian culture, began to fade away. When it became clear to executives at Merriam-Webster somewhere in the late 1940s that the old standby was no longer adequate, they began to make plans for a new edition. They hired Philip B. Gove to shape the next Webster's to be published in 1961. Gove was a linguist, not a student of literature, and that made all the difference. His theory of what a dictionary should be was based on five concepts of linguistics: 1. Language changes constantly. 2. Change is normal. 3. Spoken language is the language. 4. Correctness rests upon usage. 5. All usage is relative.
These five concepts were not beliefs; they were facts. They had been verified by observation and evidence. It was not a matter of faith. In fact, Gove contrasted the scientific concepts of language change to religious belief in revelation. There is no outside source and sanction for language other than common usage. The notion of a "correct" manner of speaking and writing was irrelevant. A dictionary could no longer prescribe the correct usage of words; it could only describe the ways in which language is used in a society. The dictionary was no longer prescriptive of language; it was now descriptive of the way language is used by a people.
And this is what set off the firestorm. Those who had set themselves apart from the common herd by their manner of speech and writing suddenly felt their privileged position threatened by a dictionary, the very source of their authority. But, in spite of the relentless attacks, Webster's 3rd did have its defenders. Among these were the language scholar James Sledd and the author of a dictionary of usage, Bergen Evans. In defending the new dictionary, Evans cited that great 18th Century lexicographer and author of a model dictionary, Samuel Johnson. Johnson had said that lexicographers and grammarians "do not form, but register the language." And this is exactly what Gove and his linguistic lexicographers had done with the creation of Webster's 3rd.
This book is about as exciting as one could imagine for a story about the creation of a dictionary. What is missing? The book ends with the sense that Gove and Webster's 3rd won the battle in the end. But a whole half century has elapsed since the publication of that great book in 1961. What is missing is the denoument of this play. What effect did Webster's 3rd have on society, culture, literature, and, more specifically, the dictionary trade? Did subsequent publishers follow the lead of Webster's 3rd, or were they intimidated by the harsh criticism of that book? A brief glance at my Random House Unabridged, published in 1987, suggests that later dictionaries followed the lead of Webster's 3rd. Though there were some reactionaries who reprinted and attempted to breathe life into Webster's 2nd, it was clear that that book was a dinosaur, a product of an era that no longer existed. Webster's 2nd was a museum of words, pronunciations, and usage rules of a bygone era.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Word Wars,
Consistent with Noah Webster's original design, the Second Edition was intended as an authoritative reference,founded on what were considered as the educated standards of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Encyclopedic in coverage, it contained numerous entries for historical events and persons, as well as numerous illustrations of animals, including breeds of dogs. Despite the burgeoning vocabulary of a dynamic, technologically advanced society, "the dictionary business continued to operate on the assumption that it was possible to distill all that was worth knowing." #p. 60#
When the Merriman Company began to consider a revised Third Edition, it became apparent that much had changed and that the increased amount of relevant information made the old format unfeasible. More importantly, the rapidly expanding discipline of linguistics had challenged some of the premises on which dictionaries had been constructed. Colloquial, spoken English had encroached upon what had been regarded as the formal literary language. Words previously excluded or labeled "slang" had acquired new status. In what would subsequently be viewed as a revolutionary change in orientation, the Third Edition abandoned its prescriptive function to become a document reflecting established practice. Citations illustrating word usage no longer needed to be taken from representatives of high culture; they might equally be drawn from everyday sources. Pronuciation guides now acknowledged regional variations rather than insisting on a single New England standard.
Initial reactions to the new publication were stridently negative. In essence, they deplored the perceived degradation of the language and, by extension, culture generally. Foremost among these critics was Dwight Macdonald, a prominent mid-century man of letters. As did other negative reviewers, he saw the treatment of "ain't" as symptomatic of the dictionary's subversion of literary standards.
This otherwisecogent history of the lexicographic controvery is slightly marred by the amount of attention given to Macdonald's biography. His contribution to the debate, while significant was not always productive. As Skinner notes: "Macdonald had moved the controversy into an imaginary, almost mythical realm where minor details looked like world-destroying monsters." #p. 292# Yet the author devotes considerable space to the particulars of Macdonald's career and intellectual development, as though preparing the reader for his singular contribution to the debate.
In summary, an ecellent study that can be fully appreciated while skipping the Macdonald biograpical detail.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Other Webster's 2nd/3rd International References,
This review is from: The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (Kindle Edition)I recently bought the Kindle version and immediately scanned it to see if it mentioned an interesting reference to the Third International at the beginning of the Nero Wolfe novel 'Gambit'. Wolfe's assistant, Archie Goodwin, finds Wolfe in front of the fireplace, tearing out pages of the newly-published Third International and throwing them into the fire, stating that it was 'subversive' and 'threatened the integrity of the English language - perfect for Wolfe! Unfortunately, this new book does not seem to contain this choice reference.
In addition, during a 'Q&A' interview with Justice Scalia on CSPAN, in his chambers in the Supreme Court, they showed a close-up of the new official portrait of the Justice, showing his hand on a book, which happened to be the Second International. This being somewhat consistent with Scalia's judicial style. I suspect he agrees with 'Nero Wolfe' in regards to the Second vs Third International and his choice of dictionaries is not accidental.
In any case, a very good book and good addition to my lexicographic library, which is currently dominated by material on the OED.
3.0 out of 5 stars Word dynamics more interesting than the people,
For the most part, the individuals involved never really captured my attention. Dwight Macdonald has his moments, yet it was never exactly clear why I should care much about him or what he thought.
5.0 out of 5 stars Ain't bad at all,
This review is from: The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (Kindle Edition)The author captures the sociology of the times and keeps what could be a dry subject lively. I wish I had a copy of Webster's Third to peruse.
5.0 out of 5 stars Lexicographic whodunit,
This review is from: The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (Kindle Edition)I was thrilled. The relation between normative language and the spoken is shown here in real life.
Dictionaries are the scene. You never get to see what's behind it. This book gives you a chance.
Since I could read I was fascinated by dictionaries. As a little boy I felt I was sort of reading God's mind.
Also, I am a long time fan of The American Heritage Dictionary. Now I know how it was born.
For the 3rd Webster, it was "anything goes". Heritage was born as a reaction, with a moderate position, norming as well as reflecting usage.
1.0 out of 5 stars Not at all up to expectations,
The title piqued my interest, so I'll search for a book on a similar topic that takes a far different approach.
4.0 out of 5 stars For every language lover,
This is the story of "Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged", issued in 1961 and triggering the greatest linguistic war in American history. Its incendiary premise was that dictionaries should reflect, not the ex cathedra pronouncements of haughty "experts", but the actual usages of ordinary people. "Descriptive, not prescriptive" as chief editor Philip Gove said.
The "Ain't" in the title refers to the Dictionary's then-astonishing pronouncement that the word is "used orally in most parts of the U.S. by cultivated speakers." The uproar was humorously caught in a New Yorker cartoon in which the receptionist at G. & C. Merriam Company tells a visitor, "Sorry. Dr. Gove ain't in."
The uproar was overdone and in many respects misguided. Gove's dictionary did not endorse "ain't", or "due to" or "different than" or "galore" or "scads" or "scrumptious" or "knowed" or any of a thousand other common locutions that pompous pendants like (no, I mean "as") Dwight MacDonald claimed portended the end of civilization just by being listed. What it DID do was restrain judgment by eliminating the Webster's Second practice of attaching "vulgar" or "colloq." to disfavored words and instead substituting, sometimes, "not standard."
What makes this book so fascinating is that it shows how passionate people can be about the trivialities of usage. One commentator called W-3 "Bolshevist."
The subject will not captivate everyone. But if you are one who happily ends sentences with prepositions, splits infinitives, uses "none" as plural, and insists (correctly) that "I ain't home yet" is proper English, you will have fun with this tale of linguistic pettiness, told with wit, irony, and flair.
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The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner (Hardcover - October 9, 2012)