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.

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