David Skinner's The Story of Ain't tells the story of Webster's Third, the most controversial dictionary ever assembled. Here, Skinner tells us the story of the dictionary that was referred to as "literary anarchy."
When Noah Webster completed the first major American dictionary in 1828, he hoped it would unite the young republic culturally and politically. With the spread of basic literacy in the nineteenth century, commercial dictionaries further promised to educate the ignorant and cultivate the uncultured. G. and C. Merriam Co., which purchased the unsold sheets of Noah Webster’s 1841 American Dictionary of the English Language after his death, established its brand as the “supreme authority” on everything worth knowing.
In 1934, Webster’s Second was published, capping many decades of scholarly improvement but also setting a high watermark for all that could be included in a dictionary. Webster’s Second was a “universal” dictionary. It was like some old Victorian uncle who seems to know everything: the rules for bridge, all the names in the Bible and Shakespeare, major historical events, every last one of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and whether it’s okay to say “It’s me” instead of “It is I.” Pronunciation advice was modeled on “formal platform speech.”
Webster’s Second was not afraid of passing judgment: Apache were “nomads, of warlike disposition and relatively low culture.” Aleut were “peacable” but only “semi-civilized.” And it was rather puritanical. Many sexual terms were suppressed, and those that made it in were deprived of their naughty side. Horny was defined only as having something to do with actual horns.
Very quickly this model came to seem pathetically out of date. The example sentence for limp was antique in its reference to “a limp cravat.” The dictionary labeled ballyhoo slang even as our elegant president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, used it in one of his fireside chats, telling Depression-era Americans that “we cannot ballyhoo ourselves back to prosperity.” The science of linguistics had shown that the usual rules for shall and will were often wrong and, in general, misleading, but Webster’s Second hewed to the old line on the future tense. And the dictionary’s more encyclopedic material proved to be highly selective: forgettable royalty had been remembered but Babe Ruth and Louis Armstrong had been left out. Its formal pronunciations became fodder for jokers who said that when Webster’s gives two pronunciations the first is Boston and the second is New England.
Meanwhile Americans were beginning to embrace “our own vulgar heritage,” as Edmund Wilson once put it. In the twenties and thirties, H.L. Mencken published a bestselling study called The American Language. Writers from William Faulkner to Zora Neale Hurston to John Steinbeck made dialectal American speech into the stuff of literature. American slang fueled the language of journalism and radio, while radio and microphones helped make the formal pronunciation standards of open-air podium speech obsolete. Looser colloquial standards were replacing formal standards in American prose.
“Culture” was becoming less a shorthand for high culture. Intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald began, in the 1940s, debating the merits of “popular culture.” Higher education was less the province of a lucky few as the GI Bill sent millions of veterans to college. Science appeared to be trumping the humanities, on campus and off. Language snobs complained that even humanists were trying to sound like scientists. A technocratic middle class was taking shape. And, in Springfield, Massachusetts, instead of hiring yet another college president to lend his august name as titular editor to the masthead of the new dictionary, Merriam broke tradition and promoted a middle manager with no public reputation .
Inside Merriam, the old guard was very worried. At a meeting to discuss policies for the new dictionary, President Robert C. Munroe, who had been with the company for more than fifty years, said he almost felt like they should begin with a prayer. The future, to this retiring old hand, looked very dark. “I refer to the Black Hole of Calcutta,” said Munroe, “without any daylight or fresh air, and with the mustiest old books imaginable.”
Then he introduced Philip Gove, the new editor responsible for making Webster’s Third. Gove immediately said it was ironic that they had gathered to discuss Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged when “the very title of the book we are considering contains a series of words which almost defy definition.”
The new editor went on in this vein, openly casting doubt on whether this volume was still Webster’s, actually new, definitively international, really a dictionary, categorically English, or even unabridged.
What could be stranger or more dramatic than the new boss questioning the very name of the product and calling into question the entire enterprise? Imagine the new commissioner of baseball meeting with team owners and saying, “We can’t be sure that it’s ‘major’; it may not even be a ‘league’; and who knows what ‘baseball’ really is!”
After that, Philip Gove rewrote the editorial policies for a Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary, changing everything from the rule on encyclopedic information (goodbye historical facts and proper nouns) to its use of capital letters (every headword now appeared democratically lower-case), and its defining style (all definitions now forced into the unnatural prose of a single, unifying statement that could go on for ridiculous lengths). Pronunciations came to include a dizzying number of variations, all apparently equal in merit. Most controversial of all was Gove’s policy on disputed usages: Webster’s Third adopted a position of scholarly neutrality on words more conservative dictionaries rushed to label colloquial or slang or vulgar. It was a pure dictionary, all about the words, but utterly agnostic on many tricky issues dictionary users cared deeply about.
And when it came time to unveil their new dictionary, Merriam sent out a press release emphasizing the dictionary’s populist credentials. It noted that Webster’s Third quoted such august linguistic authorities as Betty Grable and Mickey Spillane, but then received even more attention for singling out the dictionary’s liberal treatment for the word ain’t.
Thus began the controversy.