Lexicon Valley: Webster’s Third, the most controversial dictionary ever published.

Lexicon Valley: The Story of the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published

Lexicon Valley: The Story of the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published

A show about the mysteries of English.
March 5 2012 2:12 PM

The Story of Ain’t

Listen to Slate’s show about the most controversial dictionary ever published.

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Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 5: Untuning the String

Mike Vuolo Mike Vuolo

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

In the early 1960s, amid a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, a burgeoning civil rights movement here at home, and a dawning countercultural revolution, America’s intellectual class was in an utter freak out over a dictionary. That’s right, the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third Edition incited otherwise sober-minded newspaper and magazine writers to declare nothing less than the end of the world. Bob Garfield and I talk to author David Skinner about his forthcoming book, The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.


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BOB: Mike, today we're going to do something a little different, 'cause you know we have, you know, literally weeks of history on this show. But instead of telling a meandering although clearly fascinating tale, incrementally and in excruciating detail, we're going to let somebody else do it.


MIKE: Yeah, we are. We're going to talk today to David Skinner. He's the editor of Humanities Magazine, which is published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he's the author of a book that's coming out in the fall. It's called The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. The book is about a chapter in the sort of cultural history of America that's almost hard to believe. It's about a kind of panic in 1961.

BOB: Yeah, well, understandably because I mean this was the time of the space race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the sexual revolution. America was being turned upside-down, so uh, so what's this one about? Is it about the pill?

MIKE: [laughing] Well, it's about a dictionary. It's about a dictionary that was officially titled Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, although it came to be known simply as Webster’s Third. And just to foreshadow a little bit of what the criticism of this dictionary was like, Dwight Macdonald, a famous critic for The New Yorker, said of the dictionary's editors, "They have untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English and encourage the language to eat up himself." So, just a little bit of background here, Noah Webster published his original American Dictionary of the English Language in the 1820s. His name, "Webster," fell into the public domain eventually, and so many dictionaries now use that word and kind of attach it to their dictionaries. But Merriam-Webster was the sort of legal and lexicographical heir to his actual dictionary and they have since published sort of updated and revisions and other dictionaries, including their 1934 dictionary which is known as Webster’s Second and their 1961 dictionary which is known as Webster’s Third. And Skinner's book is really about those two dictionaries and the contrast between them.

BOB: Now, I can hardly believe that I even know this, but I am aware that Noah Webster's original dictionary, apart from being the first truly American lexicography, was a kind of line in the sand. It claimed a very discrete, American form of the English language, explicitly to compare it to, uh, the English of our erstwhile colonial masters who had been operating under Dr. Johnson's dictionary rules for, uh, you know well over a century.


MIKE: Yeah, and Noah Webster was trying to, in a sense, distinguish American English and kind of elevate it with his dictionary. This was the kind of august legacy that Merriam-Webster had inherited. And, you know, their 1934 dictionary, Webster’s Second, was beloved. It was a real sort of monument to American English. Twenty-seven years later when they published Webster’s Third, it was hated. So, Skinner's book, like I mentioned, is about both of these dictionaries and we began our conversation with him in 1934 at a lavish black-tie, white-tablecloth dinner in Springfield, Mass., where the Merriam-Webster Company was then and still is headquartered. It was a dinner to celebrate the publication of this preeminent work of lexicography many years in the making—Webster’s Second.

SKINNER: There were going to be 300 very important people there from the world of scholarship and the world of publishing and the world of education, and perhaps the person they most wanted to be there was Noah Webster himself.

BOB: Oh, but he had rudely made himself unavailable.

SKINNER: Yeah, he was dead for about 90 years.


BOB: [laughing]

SKINNER: He was present in spirit they hoped. The emcee for the dinner was William Allan Neilson, editor in chief of Webster’s Second, and Merriam president Asa Baker presented to William Allan Neilson at the dinner a ceremonial gavel for his master-of-ceremony duties. It was made from apple wood that had been grown in Hartford, Conn., Webster's birthplace. Also, behind the head table hung a large oil portrait of Noah Webster. I could not figure out if there was anything to drink at this celebration, which is interesting. Prohibition had ended a year earlier, so it would have been legal to drink, but Webster’s Second happened to be conflicted on the subject of drunkenness. It would not go so far as to admit that "drunk" was commonly used as the past perfect form of "drink" in American English.

MIKE: And so, of course Webster’s Second was thought of as this kind of very dignified dictionary and that's in part what the editor, William Allan Neilson, brought to it. Who was Neilson and what was his sort of philosophy of lexicography that he brought to this craft?

SKINNER: William Allan Neilson, at the time he became editor in chief of Webster’s Second, was the president of Smith College. Before that he had been a professor of English at Harvard, where he was also the assistant editor on the Harvard Classics.


MIKE: A great big volume of sort of canon literature and nonfiction.

SKINNER: Yeah, this is the classic set, you know the living room, fancy binding, leather-covered set of great works of Western literature to have in your living room for you to consult at any moment, advertised as something you could read for 15 minutes a day to improve your mental background.

MIKE: I want to read a paragraph from the first chapter of your book in which you describe some of what was in Webster’s Second. I think this gets at William Allan Neilson's sort of philosophy of dictionary-making and the sort of "great works" ethos that he injected into it. "It contained basic biographical information on 13,000 noteworthy persons: American presidents, Austrian dukes, Catholic popes, English writers, French kings and Roman orators. Its pronouncing gazetteer went from Aarhus in Denmark to Zumbo in Mozambique. The main vocabulary identified historical events, characters from Shakespeare's plays, figures from the Bible, literary allusions and classical epithets. Its entries drew bright lines for all those tricky distinctions between shall and will, imply and infer, lay and lie, carefully tending all those delicate little fences. Words that were slang or vulgar or colloquial were so labeled. Pronunciations were few but prestigious, representing formal platform speech."

SKINNER: Webster’s Second was the great American dictionary of its day. It had 600,000 entries, which it claimed was 122,000 more than any other dictionary. It was huge. It weighed 17 pounds. The word they most often used to describe it was "universal." They thought it contained everything worth knowing. An educated person with a question should always find the answer in its pages.

BOB: Yeah, the amazing thing about this dictionary to me is not so much its dimensions and the ambitiousness of the project but its kind of worldview. It set itself up to be "the Man," not to be questioned and to be the final word on everything and woe betide he who should ignore its professions.

SKINNER: Indeed, it did refer to itself as the "supreme" authority. But that was a claim easily disproven. For instance, at the time of the dinner there was a reporter who decided he would try to stump the dictionary. He failed. He asked it all these questions like "Who was Pocahontas' father?" and "Who was the 26th president?" and "What are the rules for contract bridge?" and "What's the difference between a sirloin steak and a porterhouse?"

MIKE: Wait, were the answers to those questions actually in the dictionary?

SKINNER: Yes. But Webster’s Second would not tell you, for instance, who Babe Ruth was, despite the utter triumphant position of the New York Yankees in early '20s and 1930s. Nor would it name more than a couple of people in Hollywood, and by 1934 Hollywood is huge and the only people from Hollywood who end up in the dictionary are Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Not a single female actress. No Hollywood studio head. No director, nobody. Just those two.

MIKE: Because as popular as movies and sports were in American culture, those were considered simply too low-brow for this dictionary?

SKINNER: They were vulgar. I mean not a single name from 1920s or 1930s jazz is in the dictionary. That's amazing. Think about what the world of everyday culture is like for a person or American living in, you know, the 1920s and early '30s and for a dictionary to simultaneously claim to be universal and to have none of this information, it's just mind-boggling.

MIKE: So, Webster’s Second, when it was published, became the dictionary that you had to have in your home if you aspired to appear to be an educated person who cared about these sorts of things.

SKINNER: There was no other big dictionary, big American dictionary in the market at the time. It pretty much owned this part of the dictionary market, the authoritative part, the "upstairs," you know. For instance, if you look up "ain't" in Webster’s Second it very forthrightly tells you it's illiterate and dialectal. It's a word not to be used. If you look up "split infinitive," it tells you, though it's sometimes useful to split an infinitive, many authorities look down upon it. If you went to the dictionary expecting to find out the difference between, you know, "healthy" and "healthful" it would tell you.

MIKE: Let's fast-forward now about 25 years or so. It's the late 1950s and a guy named Philip Gove is hard at work on Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition. Who was Gove and what was the philosophy of lexicography that he brought to this endeavor?

SKINNER: Gove was a former academic and former naval lieutenant turned lexicographer. He came to Merriam as a kind of middle-manager. He was very much unlike William Allan Neilson who was the head of a college and sort of a spokesperson in well-known magazines for educational topics. Gove was kind of a nobody. He was a very good lexicographer who took a very modern, scientific view of the language, but he had very little appreciation for the public spokesman aspects of being the editor-in-chief of a Merriam-Webster dictionary. I think of it as, like, if you have an organization where you have people upstairs who seem sort of isolated and who are always thinking about what people outside the building are thinking, and downstairs you have the people who do the work. And they're constantly asking themselves, why are the people upstairs so stupid?

MIKE: [laughing]

SKINNER: It's like you put those people in charge. One day the people who are always asking that question are running the dictionary.

MIKE: The proletariat are taking over.

SKINNER: It is like that. It is like the proletariat are taking over. In the old dictionary the president of Merriam and William Allan Neilson, they wanted to make sure that there were enough, you know, high-toned literary quotations in the dictionary. And they wanted to see names like Tacitus and Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln frequently, you know, they wanted the pages dense with these really beautiful sort of souvenir quotations of high culture. In Gove's dictionary, he wanted to see the names of people whose English you actually know. He wanted the definitions to cite, you know, Mickey Spillane or the local newspaper.

BOB: Betty Grable.

SKINNER: Betty Grable. Or Polly Adler, who was a best-selling 1950s author who in the '20s and '30s had run a cathouse in New York City and she wrote a famous memoir called A House Is Not a Home that was quoted multiple times in Webster’s Third.

BOB: [laughing] Pretty great title.

SKINNER: I mean what you see is a lot of the sort of slangy language of the '20s and '30s and '40s being swept up in the evidence gathering of Webster’s Third.

MIKE: So in these example sentences that would appear in the dictionary to show how a word would actually be used, Gove was drawing on this very low-brow culture that Neilson, his predecessor, deliberately avoided.

SKINNER: He disdained it. He disdained the popular culture. He didn't want Babe Ruth in his dictionary. He didn't want Mickey Spillane or Hollywood stars or Mae West or any of that "crap." He wanted a dictionary that reminded you of the Harvard Classics and what you probably didn't get in your college education.

MIKE: But Gove did more than just use quotations from popular culture. He got rid of a lot of words that were in Webster’s Second, words that he deemed sort of obsolete or kind of no longer useful. He included a lot of new words and he even sort of tampered with their usage labels, like he dropped the whole "colloquial" label didn't he?

SKINNER: He did. For the longest time, users of dictionaries looked at the word "colloquial" and viewed it as a warning label, meaning, you know, "bad word." Don't use it. But that's not what lexicographers intended. They just simply meant to describe a kind of less formal, non-written usage standard for colloquial words. But this misunderstanding was so rampant that instead of addressing it, Gove decided to just take the label out and throw it away. Besides, he thought, it was too complicated to say up front that a word was categorically colloquial or slang even. Webster’s Second calls the word "ballyhoo" slang, even as President Roosevelt is using it in one of his Fireside Chats to discuss the gravest issues of the day.

TAPE of ROOSEVELT: We cannot ballyhoo ourselves back to prosperity. And I'm going to be honest at all times with the people of the country.

SKINNER: So, Gove took the view that language was just so complex it was simply impossible to label all these words and expect those labels to stick in actual usage. I mean if the president of the United States, this beautifully educated aristocrat, FDR, is using a word that supposed to be the cant of thieves and horse traders, I mean something's wrong.

BOB: Yeah, far be it from me to suggest that you're missing the point of your own book, [laughing] but what really distinguishes to me the Webster’s Third from Webster’s Second gets right down to philosophy. It's not just surrendering dignity. It's that Webster's the Second prescribed what the vernacular should be and Webster’s Third reflects what the vernacular was and lets actual usage inform what constitutes the living language.

SKINNER: Bob, I'm glad you read the whole Wikipedia entry on this controversy.

BOB: [laughing]

SKINNER: It's really, it's really helpful. I'm glad you come prepared.

BOB: Uh, excuse me David? David? Let me just make just one thing very, very clear. I will be doing the jokes here, all right?

MIKE: Hey, his are better than yours so far.

BOB: Hush!

SKINNER: But you're absolutely right. That is the main difference. One wants to say what good usage is and the other one does not want to say what good usage is. It just wants to say what usage is—not how they should use words but how they do use words. So, for instance, if you look up "shall" and "will" in Webster’s Second you find the way that they've been treated for years. A lot of work had been done on "shall" and "will" in the '20s and '30s though, showing that, for one thing, "shall" was fading from the language so it could hardly be considered an equal partner in the future tense. But also that all English speakers relied on all sorts of other words to create future tenses. So, you find in Webster’s Third a totally different treatment of words like "shall" and "will." "Imply" and "infer." Most educated users observe a very strict difference between "imply" and "infer," which you'll find in Webster’s Second. In Webster’s Third, you get the messy version. You know, "imply" defined with reference to "infer" to even suggest that "infer" may be a suitable synonym for "imply."

BOB: [groaning]

SKINNER: And vice-versa.

MIKE: I'm with you Bob. I hear you groaning.

BOB: I gotta say, David, when I read the chapters on some of the particulars of Webster’s Third I find myself wincing, you know "imply" and "infer" probably most of all but also the idea that "enormousness" and "enormity" are considered legitimately as synonyms you know strikes me as an enormity. And the idea that "irregardless" even gets a shout-out, you know just sort of offends me to the core of my being. Which gets to the amazing streak of authoritarianism that this tapped in those who you wouldn't normally think of as being authoritarian. It just came cascading out of the most liberal circles.

MIKE: I think what you're trying to say Bob is this dictionary, the publication of this dictionary, caused a huge controversy.

BOB: Yeah, that. That's what I'm trying to say. I mean, that's what I'm inferring.

MIKE: [laughing]

SKINNER: Good one. It's interesting that you put it that way because it was simply not true that "enormousness" and "enormity" were treated as synonyms in Webster’s Third. They were thought to be treated as synonyms by careless journalists who were simply mining the dictionary on deadline time for gross violations of good usage.

BOB: I think I'm busted.

SKINNER: You are! You and Life Magazine have both gotten this wrong. Life Magazine printed this but if you look up "enormousness" and "enormity" you find out that the definitions are fine. One has a cross-reference to the other to help you avoid confusing the two. The cross-references appear in small caps, so you actually have to use the dictionary with some care, some modicum of attentiveness to, you know, get from it what it wants to give you.

MIKE: So, some of the controversy, as a result of this dictionary's publication, was based on a misunderstanding (and we'll get to that in a few minutes), but a lot of the controversy was not. It was just criticism leveled at this dictionary for what it was and what it represented.

BOB: A freak-out. It was a freak-out.

SKINNER: I agree with that. It starts with a few mistakes that help build up the controversy. But finally the controversy comes down to people having some understanding, enough, of what the dictionary intends to be and hating it for it. Philip Gove called, you know, the English language "an instrument of the people." He said Webster’s Third should have "no traffic" with artificial distinctions of correctness in the language. These are fighting words. It's like he was taking an ax to Webster’s Second. It's like he was taking an ax to a stack of classroom textbooks that since, you know, the 18th century had been upholding the rules on "shall" and "will" and "imply" and "infer" and hundreds of other subtle linguistic niceties.

MIKE: And who took the bait?

SKINNER: One expects to almost have like gone into church in October, 1961, and to have heard the local preacher denouncing Webster’s Third.

BOB: Well, now that you mention it, it was sort of Vatican II, the lexicography version.

SKINNER: Among the critics, there was definitely this sense of the changing zeitgeist. You know the '60s were happening. For instance, you know one of the new words in the dictionary is "beatnik," and the Washington Star, a good newspaper, thought that everything that beatniks represented amounted to literary anarchy. If this was the dictionary of the beatniks, this was the freakin' end of the world. This is really bad stuff. The New York Times practically drew a blood vendetta on the dictionary, writing at least a dozen articles about its, you know, many crimes against the English language, several of those pieces from the editorial page. Imagine the New York Times editorial page going after a dictionary, not once but several times and calling for the dictionary to be put out of circulation. And asking that Merriam go back to Webster’s Second, just keep printing the old ones, we'll forget this ever happened and we'll start over. We'll start over. Forget that $10 million you spent making the dictionary. Forget the 12 years of hard work by hundreds of people. Let's just start from scratch. We'll fix the whole thing. Um, all the good magazines got in on the act. The Atlantic published an article by Wilson Follett calling the dictionary a "very great calamity." Every time someone spoke about it they seemed incapable of saying, you know it's kind of a crappy dictionary, it's not the end of the world. That was never the case. It's a crappy dictionary AND it's the end of the world. Dwight Macdonald attacked it in The New Yorker and he very quickly too called it the end of the world. He's a very good reporter, he interviewed Philip Gove. He spent a lot of time with the dictionary, gathered just lots of cool, neat factoids about the dictionary, noting for instance that lingerie seemed to have something like 25 or 30 separate pronunciations. And he sees in the dictionary a kind of nihilistic logic that is just death to the language. And so he ends his essay with this long quote from Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare. And it's this speech of Ulysses where he's describing the end of the world. He's describing planets falling out of their orbits and the oceans rising and mankind reduced to a kind of animal state of pure power struggle where we are just killing each other to survive.

TAPE from GHOSTBUSTERS: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!

SKINNER: All because of a dictionary.

BOB: Which gets right back to this weird authoritarian streak that seems to run in even the most allegedly liberal minds. What is it about language that triggers this kind of reaction?

SKINNER: That's a great question and I've thought a lot about it. And, I mean I guess the short answer is I have no idea. I wonder sometimes if we're just so punished by our school teachers that we can't get over the psychological abuse we've received in the classroom in language arts class and we just don't want to allow that it's OK to split an infinitive.

MIKE: [laughing] We're continuing the cycle of abuse?

SKINNER: We are continuing the cycle of abuse. Um, writers seem unusually prone to excess in this regard.

MIKE: I sort of suggested that we would talk a little bit about some of the controversy that erupted as a result of misunderstandings and that was primarily over the word "ain't." And this had a lot to do with one of Merriam-Webster's own press releases.

SKINNER: The first publication to accuse Webster’s Third of being a radical document was in effect Merriam-Webster itself. They put out a press release misquoting the dictionary's own definition for "ain't," making it sound very, very liberal. It was quite liberal to begin with but they made it sound extra, extra liberal, like they were recommending the word "ain't" for, you know, fashionable conversation. The other thing they did in the press release is they said that this was the first time "ain't" had appeared in a dictionary, which was simply not true. It had been in their own dictionaries for many years. It was not new to dictionaries at all. So, a lot of newspaper reporters thought, well, of course ain't’s not a word to begin with and now it's in dictionaries AND they're recommending it? It was sort of perfectly calibrated to excite headline writers too. So you actually get a lot of good headlines out of it like "Saying ain't ain't wrong" and "Say it ain't so" and "Good English ain't what we thought." It runs through scores of newspaper headlines.

BOB: You know I'm not sure whether all of this uproar helped the dictionary in sales or hurt it, but it did create a marketplace for a competing dictionary that cleaved to more rigid prescriptive standards.

SKINNER: The controversy was very good for sales of Webster’s Third. It made a ton of money in the first few years of publication. A lot of people seemed to be buying it to check out what the fuss was about. But you're right. Several years later, American Heritage Dictionary was published and its most novel aspect was the use of a usage panel. What the editors did was they lined up many distinguished writers and thinkers ...

MIKE: Academics.

SKINNER: Academics.

BOB: Ayatollahs.

SKINNER: [laughing] To whom they would send, you know, once a year or so a survey asking their opinions on various disputed usages. Many of the critics of Webster’s Third actually ended up on this panel. Dwight Macdonald was on the panel. Jacques Barzun was on the panel. Wilson Follett was on the panel. Mario Pei, who criticized the dictionary at length in the New York Times and elsewhere, was on the panel. Many years later I happen to be on the panel, so I know a good bit about the institution. American Heritage Dictionary was marketed as a kind of old man's dictionary. They did these ads where they'd show a hippie kid whose values obviously suck and the tagline says something like, you know: He doesn't like your music. He's not going to like your dictionary.

MIKE: Sort of the opposite of the way that like GM tried to market Oldsmobiles in their latter days, right? Like this is not your father's Oldsmobile. They're like this IS your father's dictionary.

BOB: [laughing] Your grandfather's dictionary. I take it that the three of us agree that the philosophy of Webster’s Third is the right one, to reflect the malleability of a living language so, you know, three thumbs up for that I assume. Yet Mike and I have already shared our pet peeves. I wonder if there are entries in Webster’s Third that to this day make your blood boil.

SKINNER: What annoys me about the dictionary is that it's hard to use. It's harder to use than it should be. For instance, even when the dictionary is willing to make a categorical judgment about, say, a racial or ethnic slur, it labels it in this irritating manner: “Usually taken to be offensive.” If someone calls you the N-word you're just offended. Sometimes we can actually be categorical about certain words.

MIKE: Doesn't it matter though who is calling you the N-word and who is receiving it?

SKINNER: It does indeed, but its power to offend is acknowledged by all.

MIKE: I don't think I would agree with that because I think now the N-word has come to be used familiarly in certain circles and in that context it's not offensive. It's USUALLY offensive. Depending on who's using it it might not even usually be offensive

SKINNER: But a dictionary should not only be written for someone who has, you know, a sort of nuanced understanding of how context shapes communication, it should also be written for someone who doesn't simply know the word. For someone who doesn't know the N-word to find "usually taken to be offensive," it's simply confusing.

BOB: Hm. I believe we've located the author's authoritarian streak.

SKINNER: Yes. Another thing that drives me nuts is its policy on capital letters. Not a single entry, except for “God” in the original printing of Webster’s Third, used a capital letter. Even the first person pronoun "I" was given as a lowercase "i."

BOB: Nuh-unh.

SKINNER: I mean this is just mind-boggling.

BOB: Nuh-unh!

SKINNER: That is, that is SO annoying.

MIKE: OK, I'll give you that one.

SKINNER: I think it comes from what Gove learned by reading linguistics, about the sort of appearance of a word in print not being the true version of the word. The spoken word is actually primary. That's the true word. Print is just an imitate to, you know, symbolize spoken language in visual form.

BOB: So it's maddeningly unjudgmental even for you.

SKINNER: It is. It's like a book that doesn't know it's a book. It's a product of the print culture. I mean, it's for people who write. They need sound advice on, you know, the first person pronoun and, and other things. It shouldn't be so damn hard!

MIKE: David, this has been really fascinating. Thank you so much.

BOB: Thanks David.

SKINNER: Thanks Bob. Thanks Mike. Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.

MIKE: David Skinner is the author of The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. It'll be coming out in the fall by HarperCollins.