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Word Wars And The 'Story Of Ain't'


In 1961, dictionary publishers G & C Merriam published a revised edition of "Webster's New International Dictionary" which, since it's printing in 1934, was considered the standard bearer of American English. "Webster's Third New International Dictionary" was a thoroughly modern tome. It added thousands of new words, updated usage suggestions, and was meant to capture language on the cutting edge of American culture. Instead, it sent scholars and wordsmiths into a frenzy.

In his new book, "The Story of Ain't," David Skinner writes about the maelstrom that followed this controversial dictionary. And he joins me in the studio. Thanks for coming in.

DAVID SKINNER: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what was so controversial about this dictionary?

SKINNER: Well, it starts with the word ain't. And they sent out a press release making it sound as if ain't was coming into the dictionary for the first time, which was not really true. And they made it sound like "Webster's Third" treated ain't in a significantly different way, which also wasn't really true. What was clear about the dictionary though, from the start was that it had a kind of aggressive, antagonistic attitude toward classroom notions of correctness.

The editor of the dictionary said a dictionary should have no traffic with artificial notions of correctness. He was basically putting schoolmarms on notice that this dictionary was not for them. This is a...

MARTIN: This is like a dictionary of the people.

SKINNER: This is a serious dictionary. We're going to say how people actually use the language. He called it - he said, Language is a tool of the people. Well, Philip Gove was like...

MARTIN: Philip Gove was the editor...

SKINNER: The editor of "Webster's Third" and he was always sort of looking downward in the organization, and having very good ideas about how, you know, linguistics - the science of linguistics can inform the making of dictionaries.

MARTIN: So, Philip Gove sees that the dictionary needs to be overhauled; he includes the words in this version.

SKINNER: There are a lot of the words including: astronaut, beatnik, zip gun, some...

MARTIN: The word astronaut was not in the dictionary before?

SKINNER: The word astronaut was not in the dictionary. I think the first citation for astronaut in the Merriam-Webster's files, if I remember correctly, is from the '20s. And it was kind of a fanciful thing at the time. But it's an example of a word that was invented to describe something just in the imagination that actually finally...

MARTIN: Aspirational.

SKINNER: Yeah, an aspirational world - word that finally becomes real. But a lot of words also just change a little bit, like the word cool. Cool in the '50s becomes different. It becomes cool in the way that we often use it, like Miles Davis made this album "Birth of the Cool." And cool is a common, you know, youthful term that finally gets defined in that way in "Webster's Third."

MARTIN: So it was an intent to kind of capture language as it was being used in pop culture.

SKINNER: Definitely. Definitely. And so, the press release also, you know, quoted all these kind of lowbrow sources for language, like Mickey Spillane and Betty Grable, and Polly Adler, who was a former madam who had a best-seller in the '50s about her days as a '20s and '30s, you know, cathouse operator. Whereas the dictionary before it, the more respectable "Webster's Second," if it quoted a source it quoted a kind of canonical author, like Alexander Pope or, you know, William Shakespeare. Or - I mean there's a lot of Shakespeare in "Webster's Third," too. But what really set it apart was its great appetite for popular culture, sort of references.

MARTIN: So how was it received?

SKINNER: It was an incredible storm of newspaper headlines at first. You know: Ain't, Ain't Wrong Anymore, Says Webster's - that kind of thing. But it quickly turned very serious. It went from being kind of a jokey matter about, oh, look what these crazy lexicographers cooked up in Springfield, Massachusetts, to oh, my gosh, the language is coming apart right in front of us.

And so, The New York Times got in and that sort of almost like a second stage of the controversy. Because they start calling on the Merriam-Webster to start over, to go back to their 1934 dictionary, to just dump millions of dollars of work and many, many years of effort on behalf of this whole company. Just start over. Just go back to scratch and do the whole thing right this time.

MARTIN: I also found it interesting, Philip Gove's edition, the Third Edition tried to get away from value judgments. That interestingly enough, the Second Edition had all these suggestions about what the words -what the character of the word was. If a word was vulgar, they would print, you know, this is the vulgar word or this is something that could be used in informal speech, this is slang. And Philip Gove said I don't want to place value judgment like that on these words.

SKINNER: Yeah, "Webster's Second" was definitely guilty of a great deal of editorializing about words. Philip Gove wanted, you know, wanted a clean and sort of neutral definition of everything. He didn't want to, you know, taking opinions on, you know, what's the best known wine of a certain region. He wanted you to just define the word and kind of get out of there, and try not to pass judgment while you're at it.

MARTIN: So, now just 'cause it's bugging me, can we look up zip gun?

SKINNER: Oh, sure.


SKINNER: (Reading) A homemade gun that is constructed from a toy pistol or length of pipe; has a firing pin usually fired powered by a rubber band and fires a .22 caliber bullet.

MARTIN: David Skinner, his new book is called "The Story of Ain't." He joined us here in our Washington studio. David, thanks so much for coming in.

SKINNER: Oh, thanks a bunch for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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