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The Story of Ain’t

by Jonathan Leaf
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Sunday Feb 9, 2014
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"The Story of Ain’t" is a history of a dictionary.

It’s also nothing you could possibly expect. It isn’t wordy or prolix. It isn’t dull. In fact, if you find the subject of language even moderately interesting, you’ll love it.

After all, it’s stuffed with great stories and amusing anecdotes and written in an extraordinarily lively, engaging style. In addition, author David Skinner manages to paint a series of amusing character portraits around which he tells his story.

The subject is the introduction in 1961 of the Webster’s "Third New International Dictionary." Hard as it may be to believe at this remove, the dictionary became a major news story, and it was repeatedly attacked -- excoriated and vilified might be better words -- in articles and editorial columns all over the country. Among the lacerating descriptions of it were ones in The New York Times, Life, and The New Yorker.

Routinely, the book was charged as an accomplice of the Soviet Union and a sign of the decline and fall of civilization. Skinner, who is the editor of Humanities magazine, was intrigued and provoked into writing an account. He wondered: What got both the highbrows and ordinary folks so agitated? Why was everyone in a snit?

Yet his book is not just a record of that controversy, but a broader examination of the changes in American life and in linguistics that surrounded the writing of the dictionary. In the course of his tale, we are granted a sometimes wistful, but also frequently very funny, view of our country as it passes through a lengthy process of re-invention, moving from the earnest world of the Progressive Era through the time of TV dinners and the space race.

I have to acknowledge here that I know and like the author, but that is not the reason for my almost unambiguous salute to his book following its release in softcover. It’s simply terrific, one of the most delightful books I’ve read in many years. Skinner manages to describe his characters -- from dictionary editor Philip Gove to determined critics like Dwight MacDonald -- with wry humor, informed breadth and a certain affectionate detachment.

He’s a superb storyteller.

"The Story of Ain’t" is stuffed with great stories and amusing anecdotes and written in an extraordinarily lively, engaging style.

The cause of the attacks upon the dictionary were many. A complete re-writing of Merriam-Webster’s much beloved Second Edition, it included a vast number of slangy new words. Yet it largely did away with terms like "slang" and "colloquial" in describing these terms.

Further, the dictionary added heaps of space for alternate pronunciations. At the same time, it eliminated encyclopedic references for all but a handful of people and places, and it got rid of regular sentence structures in definitions, making the whole thing much harder to read.

The aim of the dictionary’s authors was to convey the idea that just as no person in a democratic society could claim that he (or she) was better than anyone else, no word had any more validity or status. "Ain’t" wasn’t really so much worse than "am not." Likewise, the dictionary implied to its readers that it was of no greater worth to provide information about who Lord Byron was than to explain that sixty-one was a number one greater than sixty.

Skinner manages to make all this -- and even detailed discussions of currents in the field of linguistics -- entertaining.

But I do have one objection to this immensely delightful book: I must say that I can’t fully agree with the author’s essential viewpoint. While acknowledging the many faults of "Webster’s Third," he is receptive to the idea that it was undeservedly pounced upon, and to that end he manages to point out a great many serious errors that were put forward by the dictionary’s critics.

My own sympathies lie elsewhere. Like many people passionate about writing, I have quite a few dictionaries lying around. But to my mind one stands out: the "Webster’s Second." More compact and far easier to read than the "Oxford English Dictionary," it’s full of well-chosen, erudite and delightful illustrative quotations. Moreover, it has plenty of useful reference information, along with a huge number of choice definitions. On top of all that, it’s in one volume and in a readable type face and font.

Simply put, it’s the best dictionary of the English language that was ever produced. (I have two copies, and I once even had a third.) Yet the "Webster’s Third" jettisoned much of what was great about the second, producing something that was unreadable and unwieldy.

It was merde. Or, as one of my grandmothers would have said, it was a shanda. While you couldn’t have looked that up in the "Second," it’s Yiddish for shame.

But the word is quite a lot stronger in the original.

by David Skinner

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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