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.

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.