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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.

But Gove had reasons to update Webster’s. Published only 27 years earlier in 1934, Webster’s Second was idolized as a symbol of middle-class respectability. It had a shamelessly antimacassar essence, eschewing entries for Babe Ruth, illustrating “limp” with “as in a limp cravat,” and offering facile and downright offensive ethnic judgments: the Aleuts were a “a peaceable, semi-civilized people,” as opposed to Apaches who were “of warlike disposition and relatively low culture.” Webster’s Second recommended British pronunciations alien to most Americans by 1934, at least beyond the rarified world of Boston Brahmins and similar urban elites. G. & C. Merriam itself, the publisher of the Webster’s volumes, had even released John Kenyon and Thomas Knott’s A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English in 1944 to provide more modern American pronunciations. But even these remained distinctly plummy: people who consulted it were taught to say “rawk” for "rock" and “pitih” for "pity" like characters in Noël Coward plays.

With the Third, Gove also responded to a larger shift: a linguistic unbuttoning in American life perceptible in the wake of the democratizing effects of the war. “Forty years ago it was considered courteous to use formal English in speaking to strangers, implying they were solemn and important people. Today it is considered more flattering to address strangers as if they were one’s intimate friends,” the editors of A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage noted as early as 1957. Scientific linguists increasingly argued that writing is not “the real language,” but “merely a way of recording speech by visible marks,” as Leonard Bloomfield memorably put it. A legitimate description of a language is based on how people speak it casually, and there is no scientific basis for deeming certain words and constructions “wrong.” In 1952, the National Council of Teachers of English, accepting this view, expounded five basic points: language changes constantly, change is normal, spoken language is the language, correctness rests upon usage, and all usage is relative.

The truth in this seems obvious when you consider the obscure indigenous languages upon which the theory was based. Yet the argument runs up against a not-in-my-backyard kind of opposition. Most English-speakers are resistant to change when it affects English. Thus when Gove proclaimed that unwavering reliance on the authority of the dictionary was “an intellectual error that G & C. Merriam could no longer countenance,” he was stepping into a hornet’s nest. He only stirred it up further in countenancing quotations from Mickey Spillane, Billy Graham, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Walter Winchell as freely as—and perhaps in preference to—the likes of Alexander Pope.

Typically of media fracases, more heat was shed than light. Much was made of the inclusion of “orientate,” “upsurge,” “finalize,” and the suffix “-wise,” though they appeared in the Second as perfectly acceptable. It was hardly ideal that Gove decided not to designate which words were colloquial rather than standard, but then the labels “nonstandard” and “substandard” were used throughout.

Gove’s and others’ attempts at defense were multiple but ineffectual, assuming the basic tenets of the scientific view of language would be transparent to most, when the opposite is the case. A linguist will say that grammar is casual speech, but Dwight Macdonald in his famous “A Theory of Popular Culture” decried sociologists who accept “statistical majority as the great Reality.” Literature scholar James Sledd cheekily asked the Third’s detractors to name “a primitive language and say what makes it primitive”—implying that there was no such thing. What he didn’t realize is that most people do tend to suppose—hardly unreasonably—that unwritten, obscure languages are less “developed” than national ones. (Another example of clash between the linguists and the lay people: when linguist Charles Fries submitted a manuscript analyzing the grammar of 3,000 letters, it came back from the publisher with all of the colloquialisms “corrected”!)

The brouhaha over Webster’s Third actually occupies only the final sixty pages or so of The Story of Ain’t; the book’s expansion from an essay is clear. The reader who at times forgets that the book is not a by-the-decade checklist of new words entering American English or a capsule biography of Macdonald may be forgiven. Herbert C. Morton’s The Story of Webster’s Third remains the more direct engagement with the controversy itself.

The irony of this antique-seeming controversy is that in many ways it is still relevant. Even in our distinctly do-your-own-thing times, Gove would find the general public’s views on “correct” language as conservative as those that caught him unawares in 1961. Only this year did the Associated Press stylebook sanction the word “download.” In fact, checking my copy of the Fifth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, I notice that as late as 1997, 28 percent of the book’s estimable usage panel still thought “finalize” an illegitimate word. The language wars continue.

John McWhorter is a Contributing Editor to The New Republic.