Through a hodgepodge cast of linguists, writers, and lexicographers, The Story of Ain't [Harper, $26.99] chronicles how world war, the Great Depression, and other major events shaped Americans' use of English and led the G. and C. Merriam Co.to produce two very different dictionaries: Webster's Second in 1934 and Webster's Third in 1961.
The usual way to describe the difference is to say the Second was prescriptive, telling readers how they ought to use language, and that the Third was descriptive, telling readers how the language is already being used. But this merely scratches the surface. In fact, the two dictionaries were as different as the years they were published.
The Second was prudish, inhibited, and yet full of information. It weighed seventeen pounds and reflected the grand tradition of late nineteenth-century lexicography, when dictionaries doubled as encyclopedias and promised a newly literate nation "efficient training to the best kind of culture." With biographical information on thirteen thousand "noteworthy persons" and geographical information on everywhere from Aarhus to Zumbo, it was the "supreme authority" on everything worth knowing. It preferred high-tone usage and pronunciations. Words of doubtful status it labeled vulgar or slang. Pronunciations were few and prestigious, representing "formal platform speech."
The Third was more narrow, jettisoning all the encyclopedic material in order to remain a single-volume dictionary. It was more honest about the state of actual usage and more comprehensive within its stated boundaries, but it was much less fluent in the prejudices of educated Americans. Its editor Philip Gove openly disavowed "artificial notions of correctness and superiority." A press release flaunted the dictionary's use of lowbrow quotations from Mickey Spillane and Betty Grable. Yet the dictionary was frequently knocked for being too complicated. Gove was a reader of linguistics and his notion of what a dictionary was and how words should be defined were heavily influenced by the linguist's sense that language is difficult to understand and irreducibly complex.
Neither dictionary was immune to controversy. But no single dictionary ever saw a controversy like the nationwide freakout that greeted Webster's Third, which achieved its status as the most controversial dictionary ever by appearing to endorse vulgar English as good English.
Here are 9 of the most controversial words added to Webster's Third:
Few definitions from Webster’s Second haunted the editorial memories of G. and C. Merriam Co. like the one for <em>journalistic</em>: “of a style characterized by evidence of haste, superficiality in thought, inaccuracy of detail, colloquialisms, and sensationalism.” It was accidentally given as a non-pejorative definition, but it may have reflected an institutional distrust of journalists, who can be useful to promoting a dictionary but also tend to be smart alecks. When it came time to consider candidates for the job of overseeing <em>Webster’s Third</em>, the name of H.L. Mencken came up, known not only for his clever journalism but for his bestselling book on American English, <em>The American Language</em>. But Merriam’s general editor, J.P. Bethel, said that “some of us... feel that regardless of age, geographical location, and national reputation, we shall be well advised not to select our editor from among journalists and publicists.”
Talking with some friends recently, I heard about a man who “swore by <em>Webster’s Second</em>,” the conservative predecessor to Webster’s Third. “Does he know,” I asked, “that it defines masturbation as ‘onanism, self-pollution’?” My guess is he began swearing by the <em>Second</em> long after the end of his adolescence. <em>Webster’s Second</em> was particularly unfriendly to sexual terms. Ménage à trois could be found in the writings of George Bernard Shaw and D.H. Lawrence, but <em>Webster’s Second</em> only ran an entry for ménage, which it defined as “a household,” without the slightest suggestion of illicitness. Even the literary authorities it cited tended to be squeaky clean: Later a Merriam editor noted that it didn’t once quote Oscar Wilde, Eugene O’Neill, or Somerset Maugham.
While teachers talk themselves breathless trying to convince students of the difference between <em>imply</em> and <em>infer</em>, <em>Webster’s Third </em>perversely muddied the issue by using <em>imply</em> to define <em>infer</em> and vice versa. The second sense of <em>imply</em> said, “to indicate or call for recognition of... not by express statement but by logical inference.” The second sense of <em>infer</em> said, “to derive by reasoning or implication.” These definitions seemed to relish in the gray area between these two words, which most educated people treat as separate as oil and water. The American Bar Association Journal highlighted the definitions while accusing <em>Webster’s Third</em> of “devaluing the verbal currency of the English language.”
Having labeled <em>irregardless</em> prohibitively “nonstandard,” Philip Gove, the editor of <em>Webster’s Third</em>, had no reason to be embarrassed by its treatment of this famously boneheaded term. But that didn’t stop <em>Life</em> magazine (and others) from singling out the entry to say that <em>Webster’s Third</em> had “abandoned any effort to distinguish between good and bad usage—between the King’s English, say, and the fishwife’s.” Gove and others pointed out the carelessness behind the misreporting on irregardless, but to little effect. Forty years later, this falsehood that irregardless was treated as perfectly good word in <em>Webster’s Third</em> was still making the rounds: David Foster Wallace repeated the mistaken claim in his famous essay, “Tense Present.”
<em>God</em> was the only headword capitalized in the first edition of <em>Webster’s Third</em>. Once the publisher decided to leave out encyclopedic material, the number of headwords that would have appeared capitalized was massively reduced. However, the line between proper nouns and the rest of the language tends to be blurry. So, there was no entry for <em>Russia</em>, but there was an entry for <em>Russian</em>. In addition, editor Philip Gove was unduly struck by the upredictability of capitalization, so he decided to lower-case all words and attach labels such as “usu. cap” to words like “russian.” Hilariously, this policy even extended to the first-person pronoun, <em>I</em>, which appeared in lower case with the label “cap.”
After editor Philip Gove began coordinating a defense of <em>Webster’s Third</em>, it became harder for critics to repeat many of the more eye-catching falsehoods that had circulated: <em>Life</em> magazine, for example, had wrongly said that <em>Webster’s Third</em> gave enormity as a synonym for enormousness. Jacques Barzun, Columbia University professor and the author of numerous excellent books, could have used some good examples. In American Scholar, he called <em>Webster’s Third</em> “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” But when he went to itemize the dictionary’s perversity, he settled on this totally innocuous, space-saving typographical symbol—which the editors had used to avoid repeating the headword every single time it appeared in a definition—to say its use symbolized the dictionary’s “attack on The Word.” But Barzun’s accusation was as over-the-top as his decision to capitalize the and word.
Philip Gove once said that “we can never know fully what any word means to another human being,” but when it came to writing definitions he believed that one size fits all. Every definition in <em>Webster’s Third</em> had to be presented as a “single unifying statement.” The definition for door, quoted in full in the <em>Washington Post</em> as an example of “pretentious and obscure verbosity”, illustrated the absurd literal-mindedness of this policy: “a movable piece of a firm material or a structure supported usu. along one side and swinging on pivots or hinges, sliding along a groove, rolling up and down, revolving as one of four leaves, or folding like an accordion by means of which an opening may be closed or kept open for passage into or out of a building, room, or other covered enclosure or a car, airplane, elevator, or other vehicle.”
I was born in 1973, and this is such a stale crochet that even as a professional editor I didn’t know about it until I began doing research on <em>Webster’s Third</em>. In the nineteenth century, the verb <em>contact </em>had currency as a technical term but, according to <em>Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Usage</em>, it was not until the 1930s that its nontechnical use became conspicuous and a source of controversy. In 1961, <em>Webster’s Third</em> included an entry for contact as a verb without any qualifying labels or usage notes to address its disputed status. Rex Stout had his famous detective Nero Wolfe take revenge in a novel by burning pages of <em>Webster’s Third</em> and saying, “Contact is not a verb under this roof.”
To announce its new dictionary, the G. and C. Merriam Co. sent out a press release saying <em>Webster’s Third</em> had finally welcomed ain’t into a dictionary and was endorsing its use. This was inaccurate on both counts, but newspapers lapped up the news that, in the words of the <em>Chicago Tribune</em>, “the word ‘ain’t’ ain’t a grammatical mistake anymore.” <em>The Toronto Globe and Mail</em>, however, was not laughing. It said in an editorial, “A dictionary’s embrace of the word ain’t will comfort the ignorant, confer approval upon the mediocre, and subtly imply that proper English is the tool only of the snob.” Even worse, said the newspaper, speaking in the midst of the early Cold War, a bad dictionary could help undermine communications with the Russians and thus bring about a nuclear apocalypse.