Dictionary Death Match

How Webster's set off a battle that still reverberates today.


The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner, Harper, 368 pages, $26.99

We Americans fancy ourselves a bunch of hard-headed individualists. We don't take no guff from no one. But we like our dictionaries with an authoritarian streak. When it comes to our native tongue, it seems, some of us just want to be told what to do.

David Skinner's The Story of Ain't tells the tale of "the most controversial dictionary ever published," Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. The editor of that 13.5-pounder, published in 1961, decided to record American English as it was spoken by everyone, not just the "elegant" upper-class idiom captured by its predecessor, 1934's Webster's Second. The result: a dictionary that seemed to give its blessing to words like ain't, ballyhoo, and beatnik. It acknowledged, for the first time, pop culture figures such as Babe Ruth and Betty Grable. Multiple entries referenced Polly Alder, a former madam who became a bestseller author in the 1950s for a memoir of her whorehouse days. The designation colloquial was banished for its scolding tone. Critics were not amused. An "attack on The Word," hollered Jacques Barzun in The American Scholar, who also called the dictionary "the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party."

Skinner, editor of Humanities magazine (as well as a friend and former colleague), makes the case that the freakout over the new dictionary's permissiveness was overblown—born out of a sloppy press release and perpetuated by snobs for their own reasons—but that the book itself did represent a real shift in the way lexicographers viewed their role. "Not only had it been a practical and commercial necessity to depart from the traditions of Webster's Second," writes Skinner; "it had been, for [editor] Philip Gove, an intellectual necessity. And, in his mind, the difference between Webster's Third and Webster's Second was enormous." 

Webster's Second had a stern, fatherly tone. It told you what to do, and it told you what simply wasn't done. In his own book's early pages, Skinner skillfully evokes the era when the dictionary was prestige item, meant to sit alongside the Bible as a bookshelf beacon of what was good and right:

A dictionary in the living room became a symbol of genteel aspiration. It was a password for culture, a ticket to knowledge, a compendium of all that was known and worth knowing. Noah Porter, editor of Merriam-Webster's 1864 and 1890 editions…said a dictionary should be found in every home and consulted on a regular basis. For no other habit, he wrote, "is at once so eminently the cause and the indication of careful attention to the language which we use, and efficient training to the best kind of culture.

story of ain't

Webster's Third, on the other hand, was your cool uncle, a reference book for the era of guys in black turtlenecks and gals in bikinis. By 1961, even capital letters were suddenly suspect—the editor of the Third refused to capitalize anything except God. Even the pronoun I was in lower case.

All this turmoil bred a desire in many to stand athwart something yelling Stop. A flashy press release provided the spark. As Skinner explains, the P.R. folks "so abbreviated the dictionary's entry for ain't that it amounted to a misquotation," leaving out indications that the term was "substandard" and "more common in less educated speech." The release also (inaccurately) touted the dictionary as the first to include the word, and newspapers couldn't resist joke headlines:

"Saying Ain't Ain't Wrong," said the [Chicago] Tribune; "It Ain't Good," said the Washington Sunday Star; "Ain't Nothing Wrong with the Use of Ain't," said the Louisville Times; "Ain't Still Has Tain't," said the Binghamton Sunday Press; "There's Them as Ain't Using Ain't,"  said the Jacksonville Journal.

The New York Times stepped up to excoriate the new book early, but the ringleader of the anti-Third movement was The New Yorker's Dwight Macdonald, a colorful character whom Skinner sketches in some detail. Many of Macdonald's criticisms are substantive. An anarchist in his politics but not his lexicography, he explicitly argues that dictionary writers should be arbiters of right and wrong, not just recorders of the language. But Skinner notes that Macdonald also misreads the dictionary in many places, mistaking cross-references for synonyms. The entry for infer suggests checking out the entry for imply, but does not endorse using the two interchangeably, for instance. Macdonald's dramatic conclusion involves an extensive quotation from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida about the planets falling from their orbits and then this: "They have untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English and encourage the language to eat up himself."


In recent years, Macdonald's spite-fueled torch has been carried by such diverse characters as essayist David Foster Wallace, who falsely accused the "notoriously liberal Webster's Third New International Dictionary" of including "such terms as heighth and irregardless without any monitory labels on them," and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who can be seen resting his hand on Webster's Second in his official portrait.

Despite this remnant, the march of descriptive dictionary writing continues. Those who simply want to be told what to do are welcome offer their lexicographical allegiance elsewhere. But after reading Skinner's book, the kind of people who peruse (in both the old-fashioned and newfangled senses) dictionaries for fun should be sold on Webster's Third.


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  1. Alas, it’s simply not true that Websters 3rd was the first ‘descriptivist’ dictionary. That honor belongs to the Oxford English Dictionary, which never thought of itself as being an arbiter of the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to say things.

    For linguists, of course, the whole idea that there could be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ words from any independent or objective stance is incoherent. Surely if ‘ain’t’ is somehow a ‘bad’ word, n’est pas or bu shi would be even worse. But, just as there can be no basis for judgments between words in one language vs. words in another, there can be none within a language, other than what the speakers of the language actually say.

    No amount of arguing from first principles is rational, because accidental facts about whether some particular form is used (ain’t vs. can’t) cannot be defended on any basis other than convention–we know, objectively, that the choice is totally arbitrary if we actually follow how the words evolved over time (so, for example, ‘ain’t’ is very old, and used to be accepted).

    Similar facts obtain for other grammatical shibboleths such as ‘not ending a sentence with a preposition’. This has been normal English from Anglo Saxon times until 2012, except for a brief period in official public discourse from roughly 1770 to mid 20th century when some grammarians decided it was bad, and persuaded textbook writers to pay attention to them.

    1. To expand on that, how about all the prohibitions against use of the passive voice?

      “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

      “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

      If it’s good enough for Shakespeare and the King James Bible, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

      1. It already is good. Just look at any news report regarding a cop shooting someone.

      2. In engineering lab writing in college, passive voice was actively encouraged.

        Science just happens, unlike cops shooting someone.

      3. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare and the King James Bible, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

        Mistakes were made!!!

    2. Similar facts obtain for other grammatical shibboleths such as ‘not ending a sentence with a preposition’.

      I’ve always thought that rule was fucked up.

      1. That rule came from Latin. From what I understand, the prescriptivists decided that since Latin had all of these rules on how it is to be used, then English needed them as well, and then they copied them straight over with no regard as to whether or not they made sense.

        It’s the same thing with split infinitives. Perfectly fine in English, but because it was against the Rules in Latin, it should be against the Rules in English as well.

        1. Those didn’t come from Latin, they were modeled on Latin, as if saying that if you can’t xlate verbatim into Latin without moving words around a bit, it was no good. Latin itself doesn’t have or need those rules.

    3. I thought all dictionaries worked descriptively. I know of none that worked prescriptively, creating new words, or redefining existing ones.

      It’s ironic that people look to dictionaries as authoritative (prescriptive) sources yet the opposite is true. If enough people misuse a word, the dictionaries eventually recognize that misuse as legitimate.

      The ability to create new words is a fantastic thing, but having words “evolve” or change meanings, particularly to one that is contrary to its etymology is a bad thing.

      It’s particularly problematic in the Anglo-Saxon/English world, less so in other languages and none at all in contructed languages (music, programming, math, science, human languages)

      I don’t see why you can’t argue on first principles since words have axiomatic origins. Even if you can’t trace it back to its exact origins in time, you still know its etymological roots, and therefore you can very rationally argue for logical consistency at least.

      I’m stilled peeved at the political hijacking of “liberal” in English for which we still see contradicting context-dependent usage

      Likewise with the word sexism (gender discrimination) and racism (racial discrimination), largely rendered meaningless today

      1. Which Newspeak edition did you miss?

  2. Christmas gift idea for the language nerd in your life. Kindle Edition, please.

    1. Also:
      Alpha Beta [Paperback]
      John Man (Author)
      “Where these letters came from and how they have evolved over the years is more than just an academic exercise.”

  3. Sounds like a book I want to read, but what ain’t right is that nobody ain’t commenting on this review. Ain’t they interested in language and autocrats who try to control it?

    1. You know why they try to control it? Here’s why:


      1. This explains much.

    2. Scarecrow…*shaking head slowly*….its ‘this HERE review’.

    3. I enjoyed it, and KM-W’s word-humor as well.

  4. I ain’t read this story, and I hain’t gonna read it, cause I cain’t read!!!

  5. I eagerly await the Webster’s Lolcats Dikshunary. Srsly, kthxbai.

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