The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published

David Skinner, Author
David Skinner. Harper, $25.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-202746-7
Paperback - 479 pages - 978-0-06-220150-8
Ebook - 368 pages - 978-0-06-221809-4
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Humanities editor Skinner, who is on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, offers a highly entertaining and intelligent re-creation of events surrounding the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary by G. & C. Merriam. The dictionary, assembled at a cost of $3.5 million, included a press release from Merriam’s president Gordon J. Gallan, which said the work contained “an avalanche of bewildering new verbal concepts.” The new dictionary embraced informal English in 450,000 total entries, including 100,000 new words, including clunk (from Mickey Spillane), cool (from jazz), and snafu (from WWII). Editor Philip Gove’s break with tradition, the refusal to distinguish between good language and bad, outraged academics and editorial writers, setting in motion what Skinner calls “the single greatest language controversy in American history.” A Chicago Tribune headline announced “Saying Ain’t Ain’t Wrong.” Life labeled Webster’s Third “a non-word deluge,” and it was vilified as “literary anarchy.” To probe why it triggered such volcanic eruptions, Skinner shows how Gove sought to construct a modern, linguistically rigorous dictionary and details how Dwight Macdonald and other critics sought to destroy it. The result is a rich and absorbing exploration of the changing standards in American language and culture. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn Agency. (Oct.)
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