The War of the Words: How to Update a Dictionary
EARLIER THIS MONTH, the dictionary publisher Collins announced a project to crowdsource the creation of a dictionary, asking readers to submit words for inclusion. (Submissions included: Twittersphere, sexting, cyberstalking and captcha.) The Guardian called this method “the antithesis of traditional lexicography” and asked “If [the dictionary] is not intensively researched, edited, proofed and rendered as ‘true’ as possible, why bother to consult it?” Is this debate a product of the digital age? Hardly. David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t is not the history of that word, but an exploration of the scandal over the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language.
Like the crowdsourced Collins, Webster’s Third was premised on a new direction; one that struck many as giving in to new forces “blowing in the wind.” Its editor, Philip Gove, operated under a seemingly reasonable impression: that a dictionary for post-World War II America could dispense with lists of English kings, quotations from Tennyson, and the breezy disparagement of colloquial speech. Little did he know that even a figure as contemptuous of fussiness as Jacques Barzun would denounce Webster’s Third as “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” For many, a dictionary that documented the locutions of the common man was not science, but a plaint from the left.
The particular furor over the dictionary—from which Skinner’s book takes its title—was partly due to a messy press release that declared “ain’t gets official recognition at last.” The press release left out that the dictionary also noted that ain’t was “disapproved of by many” and “substandard.” (“Ain’t” had also appeared in many earlier dictionaries.) Still, reviewers had a grand time with headlines such as “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With the Use of Ain’t” amidst a nationwide clutching of the pearls: gutter talk had invaded Webster’s! The New York Times called for the entire edition to be scrapped. Dwight Macdonald, seeing Webster’s Third as an incarnation of the middlebrow takeover of America’s intellectual culture, wrote a coruscating 20-page smackdown in The New Yorker.