Friday, December 7, 2012

E. B. White on W3

Yesterday I wondered: Did E. B. White have anything to say about Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (W3), the dictionary that some thought marked the decline and fall of American English? White did, in a postscript to his 1957 essay “Will Strunk.” The postscript appears in The Points of My Compass (1962) and as a shorter prefatory note to the essay in Essays of E. B. White (1977). After suggesting that the success of The Elements of Style (1959) was due to a reaction against “the permissive school of rhetoric,” White writes:

It was during the permissive years that the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary was being put together, along new lines of lexicography, and it was Dr. Gove, the head man, who perhaps expressed the whole thing most succinctly when he remarked that a dictionary “should have no traffic with . . . artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It must be descriptive and not prescriptive.” This approach struck many people as chaotic and degenerative, and that’s the way it strikes me. Strunk was a fundamentalist; he believed in right and wrong, and so, in the main, do I. Unless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct, and simple justice.
I realize that despite all my inclinations toward the dowdy, I’m poor company for the likes of White (at least this White), as I am poor company for any kind of fundamentalist. I think that W3 is an idiosyncratic and lively monument — the best kind of monument. That other monument, the Oxford English Dictionary, is a descriptive dictionary too: if things are flying to pieces language-wise, they have been doing so for a very long time.

And now, if you’d like to follow me down a rabbit hole:

The passage that White quotes appears in W3’s editor Philip Gove’s essay “Linguistic Advances and Lexicography” (published in the October 1961 issue of the Merriam-Webster newsletter Word Study). Gove is not writing about the dictionary; the it in this passage refers to lexicography:



White has borrowed the quotation, it seems, from Dwight Macdonald’s “The String Untuned” (New Yorker, March 10, 1962). Here’s Macdonald:



Same mistaken referent, same ellipsis. And very selective quoting, ignoring Gove’s insistence that lexicography “has no reason to scorn sprachgefühl, or to apologize for depending on it.” In the essay “Tense Present” (Harper’s, April 2001), David Foster Wallace appears to borrow from Macdonald and introduce new errors:



In Wallace’s Consider the Lobster (2005), where “Tense Present” becomes the expanded “Authority and American Usage,” the misquotation changes again:



And in both Harper’s and Consider the Lobster, Wallace misidentifies Gove’s essay as the introduction to W3. W3 has no introduction, only a two-page preface, a wholly different document from “Linguistic Advances and Lexicography.” If you’re going to fly by the seat of your pants, I guess you might as well fly first class.

Related posts
DFW blues howler (another problem with sources)
E. B. White, the fact that (on the same postscript)
Review: David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t (on Webster’s Third)

[Gove’s essay is reprinted in Dictionaries and That Dictionary: A Casebook on the Aims of Lexicographers and the Targets of Reviewers, ed. James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt (1962). The “/8/” at the end of the passage marks the pagination of the original.]

comments: 2

Anthony Durity said...

Good catch.

It doesn't deflect the thrust of Tense Present, does it though?

It means I am only slightly less in slightly less in awe, DFW is human after all.

I think it is but a flesh wound, not a mortal one.

What do you think?

Michael Leddy said...

I brought DFW in only to show how a mistake can come to acquire the status of fact, with White and Wallace borrowing and repeating what Macdonald wrote.

I’m in sympathy with the general argument of “Tense Present,” and I consult Garner’s Modern American Usage almost daily. But I think Wallace’s scholarship is often sloppy. Various readers have pointed out significant factual errors in this essay and in Everything and More. There’s also an incredible claim in Signifying Rappers about Leonard and Marshall Chess (there’s a link at the bottom of this post). And there’s a grammar handout for students that’s filled with misinformation. You can see from posts about Wallace and Infinite Jest that I find a lot to value in his work. But I also see a pedantic streak that makes me skeptical.