Words War III

The story behind the bold dictionary that finally made ‘sexy’ a good thing


The subtitle for David Skinner’s book “The Story of Ain’t” could have been “Word Nerds Fight It Out.” Instead, Skinner, who will speak at Politics and Prose on Sunday, went with “America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.” That dictionary is Webster’s New International Dictionary, Third Edition, which was published in 1961 and became a battleground for what a dictionary is supposed to be: Is it an authority on what is correct, or a reflection of American English as it stands at the time?

Reading a book about the dictionary might sound about as much fun as reading the actual dictionary (hey, some people think that IS fun), but Skinner deals with the compelling personalities behind the book that was then considered the final authority on our language.

On a scale of dorkiness, “If 10 is reading the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] straight through, my book is probably a five or a six,” Skinner says. “I wanted to hit that sweet spot of fun and goofy and nerdy all at the same time.”

From ‘Ain’t’ to ‘Bootylicious’

Webster’s Second Edition, published in 1934, “really could almost make a credible case that it was the supreme authority of everything worth knowing,” Skinner says. Aside from the usual word definitions and pronunciation guides, Webster’s Second also featured biographical and geographical information. By the time they all got cracking on the third edition in the late ’50s, the very notion of what a dictionary was had started to shift.

Philip Gove, the edition’s editor, “pretty much said, ‘Let’s limit ourselves to words and try not to screw that up,’” Skinner says. Words, though, had started to change.

“He was leading us down the road to thinking more seriously about all the utterances that are in the air in a culture like ours,” Skinner says. That line of thinking has led other dictionaries — most notably the Oxford English Dictionary, the granddaddy of them all — to include words that would make the opponents of “ain’t” fall down dead. (“Bootylicious” and Homer Simpson’s famous “d’oh” are currently in the OED.)

“We’re much less likely [today] to say ‘bootylicious’ is not a word. ‘Ain’t’ was a word, and so is ‘bootylicious,’” Skinner says. “What remains the great challenge is describing for people who aren’t familiar with these words when a word like ‘bootylicious’ might be appropriate.”

Curses, Foiled Again

Webster’s Third also took a less judgmental approach than its predecessor. In the Second, “sexy” was described as a “vulgar” term; “masturbation” was defined as “onanism; self-pollution.”

That definition was “so telling of the moralistic intentions of Webster’s Second, but it did veer in that fussy direction,” Skinner says.

Webster’s Third reflected social changes in language not only by adding words that simply didn’t exist when the Second was published — “astronaut” is one example — but also by presenting more straightforward definitions, minus the church-lady attitude.

Tomato, Tomahto


Another major shift was that the editors of Webster’s Third “took off the blinders from Webster’s Second and admitted a lot of accents that existed outside of New England,” Skinner says. That produced some fairly lengthy entries, such as when they “ended up with 20-some pronunciations for the word ‘lingerie.’ But it was an equitable thing to do.”

The attempt by Webster’s Third to reflect the culture of its era still lingers. And people still get worked up about words, but in different ways.

“You see different kinds of anxiety about the words in our language,” Skinner says. “A lot of the sensitivities relate to identity, to skin color or ethnicity.”

People in 1961 freaked out about the inclusion of “beatnik,” which seems silly now, but many people today might care deeply about how a dictionary defines a word like “bitch” (which has a legitimate, inoffensive meaning, plus some more complicated, problematic ones).

“There’s a different set of sensitivities today,” Skinner says. “I wonder if we’ll ever see again people as worried about the future of civilization when it comes to a dictionary.”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sun., 5 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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