- 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: 28 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,189,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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“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)
“…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)
“…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)
“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)
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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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.
Quote a lot, it turns out. Skinner tells the stories of the dictionary and the linguistic and business issues that informed its creation--the use of the IPA, the process outlined in Gove's Black Book of dictionary-marking, the work-day at the Merriam-Webster office in Springfield (no talking), the initial public relations blunder about ain't (it said "ain't gets official recognition at last," setting Webster's III up to be about permissiveness rather than progress). Skinner describes the attempted buy-out by the American Heritage publishing company. And he tells the stories of not just Philip Gove and Dwight Macdonald but the presidents of Merriam and American Heritage (Gordon Gallan and James Parton), and the linguists and critics of the day (Leonard Bloomfield, Charles Fries, Sterling Leonard, James Sledd, Bergen Evans, and more). H. L. Mencken and David Foster Wallace even make appearances.
Skinner treats Gove and linguists of the day fairly, explaining their thinking and hinting at the difficulty of their position: describing the realities of language in a society that often wanted rules not facts. The detail research and explorations of the lives of the principals made this a compelling intellectual drama, and a tale with a moral, but not the one you might think. --Ed Battistella, on LITERARY ASHLAND
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.
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