The Story of Ain’t

storyofaintThe Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published
David Skinner
Harper Perennial, Reprint edition (January 28, 2014), 371 pages
Kindle Edition $9.78, Amazon Hardcover $19.19, Amazon Paperback, Bargain Price $10.80
e-book borrowed from the Santa Clara County Library System

When Webster’s Third New International Dictionary was published in 1961 it created quite the firestorm in the press and academia, fueled by those who felt that it was overly permissive. The word “ain’t” was more than anything else the poster child for those who disliked the dictionary. The press release that accompanied the release of the book specifically mentioned the inclusion of the word, but failed to note that its first sense included the note, “disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech,” and the second sense had the label “substandard” attached to it. That incomprehensible (given the number of people who reviewed the release and their intimate familiarity with the new dictionary) error aside, however, those in positions of power in the American literary world had it in for Webster’s Third.

All of this material is very close to the end of the book. The journey to get to that point is a fascinating one. Skinner describes the creation of Webster’s Second, and its encyclopedic approach to compiling the work. He describes how a conscious decision was made to pare back on the encyclopedia-type entries of people, places, and events in order to keep it to one volume. He discusses the politics inside the G. & C. Merriam Company and the number of candidates being considered for the job of editor of Webster’s Third. He writes about James Parton of American Heritage who despised the Merriam Webster approach to lexicography and tried to buy the company. (Parton, of course, eventually published his own dictionary under the American Heritage imprint, largely in response to Webster’s Third. About that I have much to say, but it will have to wait for another blog entry.)

Skinner also discusses a handful of American literary figures and how they influenced language in the United States. He offers insight into the attitudes of Henry Seidel Canby, Dwight Macdonald, and H.L. Menken. They didn’t have a direct association with Merriam Webster, but they have had a big impact on American English.

If you love the English language and if you like dictionaries, this is a book to add to your reading list.

a lost opportunity

When Terry and I want some ocean time one of the places we go is Capitola. It is just south of Santa Cruz and the village borders on Capitola Beach. There is a large parking lot on the northeast end of the village, and that is normally where we leave the car. They used to have parking meters. I liked that because if I put too much money in the meter we left time for someone else. It was my own way of paying it forward.

They changed that. There is now a central cluster of pay stations and each stall is numbered. It is a system that has long been used by transit agencies like BART. More efficient, no doubt. But it is a lost opportunity to pay it forward.

#143583528 /

Sacred Music Friday: Gloria

Gloria from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass


FTW is not something you see frequently on Facebook, but it shows up every so often. It means “For the Win” and it is roughly equivalent to clicking Like. Not that that makes a lot of sense, but a lot of Internet abbreviations don’t. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that LOL has long since lost its original meaning of “laughing out loud” and is now more of a generic exclamation.

As to where FTW originated, language lady Marina tells us it came from that classic television game show Hollywood Squares, along with an Internet fantasy adventure game. I noticed that this video is five years old, but I only recall encountering FTW within the last year or so. In any case, I’ll let Marina explain.

my new toy – I mean tool

I wasn’t entirely sure that I should have upgraded to iOS 8 on my iPad 2. It’s the earliest tablet device that is allowed to get the upgrade, and the performance initially was not optimal. But I did some cleanup and I’ve learned to be a little more patient at startup and let it do its thing. So I think it will be fine. (No problems at all on my iPhone 5s, by the way.)

That’s a good thing, because there is one cool feature that I think will make the upgrade worthwhile. There are three new apps that come with iOS 8 which sort of mirror Microsoft Office. One of them, Pages, is a word processor, something of a very lightweight Microsoft Word. The Pages app syncs across my iPhone, my iPad, and in the Web browser on my desktop. I’m finding this very convenient.

Admittedly there are other apps that perform the same function. I have used Evernote in this way for a while, and it works very well. But I see Evernote as more conducive to lists than to composing and writing. Indeed, I use it to maintain my notes about future blog entries. The iOS Notes app syncs in the same way, but it too is best for bullet points and line items. The Pages tool gives me a nice space for composing and writing. I like how it works. I started a blog entry on my iPhone while getting my oil changed one afternoon and finished it on my iPad in the evening. I then copied it into my blog from my desktop PC. I’ve written a couple of additional blog entries in the Pages app on my iPad while we’ve had our feet up in the evening.

Pretty cool. Pretty useful.

Pioneer Woman

One of the Food Network programs that I haven’t paid a lot of attention to is The Pioneer Woman. The idea of the little woman making a hearty meal for her husband and the ranch hands did not appeal to me. As it happens, Food Network shows reruns of Pioneer Woman at noon during the first part of the week, so I’ve caught parts of episodes while having lunch.

It turns out that Ree Drummond is small but tough, and can deftly handle her share of ranch chores. She also comes up with some interesting dishes that are of as much interest to city slickers as they are to ranch dwellers. I have saved a couple of her recipes already.

And it’s not just cowboys who enjoy her cooking. She cooks for her young boys, her teenage daughters, the folks in town, and senior citizen parents. Ree offers as much variety in her recipes as any of the other cooking shows that I watch. The Pioneer Woman won’t be on the list of cooking shows I record each week, but I will pay attention to what Ree is up to.

Living with a Wild God

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything
Barbara Ehrenreich
Grand Central Publishing (April 8, 2014), 257 pages
Kindle Edition  $12.99,  Amazon Hardcover  $26.00
e-book borrowed from the Santa Clara County Library System

Barbara Ehrenreich began her career as a scientist, but her move to political activism in graduate school took her out of science and into writing and journalism. She is well-respected as the author of many nonfiction books. I consider her to be an accomplished muckraker, a term I suppose not to be in common use these days, but I mean that in the best sense of bringing to light those things in society which we would rather not see. I have to respect someone who takes a job with a house cleaning firm à la Merry Maids to document the conditions under which those (mostly) women work. (In case you were wondering, as she described to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, the objective is to work quickly moving diagonally across the room, and to provide more the appearance of clean than actual clean.)

Living with a Wild God, then, is a departure for Ehrenreich. The centerpiece of the book is a sort of burning bush experience she had as a teenager in the Eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine. This was a bit of a problem in that both of her parents were avowed atheists and she very much saw herself in that manner as well. She describes her life before that experience and her life afterwards in light of it.

For the most part it was only decades later that she really paused to reflect on the experience. She regularly described herself as an atheist, sometimes even when the circumstances might have dictated that she stay quiet of the subject of religious belief. But she eventually opened the door a crack. She describes how her aunt told her after one interview that she saw her hesitate just a bit on that question.

Ehrenreich concludes the book insisting that the God she does not believe in is the monotheistic God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But she has come to accept that there may be something else out there. She relies on Rudolf Otto’s idea of the “wholly other” as her best description.

It’s an interesting journey. Ehrenreich has much of value to share here, even with people, like me, of faith.