Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: The Story of Ain’t

David Skinner. The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. New York: Harper/HarperCollins, 2012. xiv + 349 pages. $26.99.

The Story of Ain’t examines what David Skinner says might be “the single greatest language controversy in American history,” the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the sequel to the 1934 second-edition Webster’s New International (hereafter, W3 and W2). The controversy surrounding W3 — a controversy muddied by distortions, inaccuracies, misunderstandings, and faulty public relations — developed as American English seemed to some to be sliding toward the slipshod and vulgar. It was the time of indignation about like a cigarette should and about newfangled verbs ending in -ize, a time of polarization between descriptivists studying English as she is spoke and prescriptivists intent on enforcing correct (or allegedly correct) usage.¹ (That antagonism also provides a context for understanding the significance of the 1959 publication of The Elements of Style.) According to critics of W3, its editor Philip Gove abandoned the duty of prescriptivist authority, the authority of “the Dictionary,” as W2 called itself, the single-volume reference with the answers to all questions. The new dictionary’s critics must have thought of W2 as a secular Bible: the inerrant word of the G. & C. Merriam Company, descendants of another Noah, last name Webster. In that dreadful television series My Three Sons (a Biblical title, that), an unabridged dictionary sits open on a small table in the living room. It must be a W2, don’t you think?

The trouble for W3 began with an ill-conceived press release, which gave the impression that the new dictionary sanctioned the use of ain’t. The truth was more complicated. But outrage ensued, and for other reasons too. W3 was a work of pure lexicography, abandoning its predecessor’s “encyclopedic matter” — lists of signficant persons and fictional characters, historical timelines, a pronouncing gazetteer, everything that made the dictionary a household reference work. Perhaps more alarmingly, the dictionary abandoned the usage label colloquial and provided citations with a modern American flavor (think Ethel Merman and Mickey Spillane, not Alexander Pope and Alfred Lord Tennyson). For Jacques Barzun, Wilson Follett, Dwight Macdonald, the editors of Life and the New York Times, and, more recently, David Foster Wallace, W3 became the dictionary of anything-goes, all usage as good usage. Critics of W3 seem to have thought that including a word in a dictionary is a tacit endorsement of that word and not a matter of mapping a language. Imagine a cartographer leaving out houses and neighborhoods because respectable folk would never venture there.

The Story of Ain’t is a fine complement to Herbert Morton’s The Story of “Webster’s Third” (1994). Morton focuses more closely on Philip Gove’s life and work, the people of G. & C. Merriam, the details of the W3 debate, and the dictionary’s later life. Skinner does more to place W3 in relation to developments shaping American English: genteelism and growing resistance to it; increased access to education, secondary and higher; the celebration of American vernaculars in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, and other writers; growing contempt among a cutural elite toward “masscult” and “midcult” (Macdonald’s terms); and the principle (from linguistics) that correct usage has no innate superiority but is simply the usage of those in positions of power. Skinner’s manner of telling his story reminds me of Dickens’s Bleak House: characters are introduced one by one in short chapters, and the connections among those characters are sometimes difficult to see. With Bleak House , the element of mystery makes such a strategy engaging: we don’t know where things are headed, so we agree to follow along.² But with The Story of Ain’t we know where things are headed — toward 1961, and it takes a long time to get there, during which the narrative’s many sidetrips and bits of local color can sometimes feel like mere delays. Skinner’s account of Eleanor Roosevelt touring a B-17 is charming and funny, yes. But still. And when we get to 1961, it becomes difficult to figure out whether Skinner stands with W3 or with its critics. It’s not enough to seem amused by it all.

Still: for anyone who cares about American English and dictionaries, The Story of Ain’t will be required and rewarding reading, not least because it points the reader again and again to amusing, odd, revealing details of W3. (One example: the dictionary’s definition of hotel, which reads like a sample of postmodern prose.) The Story of Ain’t is best read with a copy of Philip Gove’s dictionary close by.


[The W3 entry for ain’t.]

Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of the book.

¹ Pedro Carolino’s English as She Is Spoke (1883) is a hilariously incoherent Portuguese–English guide to conversation. I have borrowed its title to suggest imperfections of all sorts in language use.

² Hey, it’s Dickens.

comments: 2

The Arthurian said...

I bet aww ain't in either dictionary!

Good post.

Michael Leddy said...

Not yet. :)

And thanks.