The dictionary commonly known as “Webster’s Third” — its full title is “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language” — was published in 1961 after years of assiduous preparation and immediately ran into a storm of controversy that its editors could not have anticipated. David Skinner, who edits Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, argues that the damage was largely self-inflicted.

Its publisher, the firm G. & C. Merriam, issued a cutsy-pie news release citing the various new words the editors had decided to include, among them “A-Bomb,” “beatnik” and “satellite”; the various contemporary celebrities (Betty Grable, Mickey Spillane, Dwight Eisenhower) whose utterances or writings had been quoted as usage examples; and “the new dictionary’s surprisingly tolerant, though oddly worded, entry for ‘ain’t,’ which said ‘ain’t’ was ‘used orally in most parts of the U.S. by cultivated speakers.’ ”

The news release, Skinner writes, “so abbreviated the dictionary’s entry for ‘ain’t’ that it amounted to a misquotation,” one that suggested the dictionary had, as the release put it, granted “official recognition at last” to “ain’t.” Yet this was not the first time “ain’t” had been included in a dictionary, as the news release claimed — quite the contrary — and the editors of “Webster’s Third” had not defended the word but defined it. “All of these mistaken claims tended in one direction,” Skinner writes, “implying that ‘Webster’s Third’ was much more permissive than it actually was, and that all other dictionaries, by comparison, were much more censorious than they actually were.” He continues:

“This is how the newspaper controversy over ‘Webster’s Third’ began. The first publication to accuse Merriam-Webster of being linguistically radical was its own press release. By hiring out the work of announcing its own dictionary to PR professionals, President [Gordon] Gallan and Editor [Philip] Gove had lost control of saying what the new dictionary stood for. Instead of presenting a united front of [sic] America’s learned class, they had circulated a saucy and sloppy notice (with more than a couple typos) designed not to command respect but to catch a news editor’s eye.”

The story gets more amusing after that — though Skinner scarcely tells it in an amusing or witty fashion — because it eventually developed that many of those newspaper editorialists and columnists who had been so quick to pounce on the new Webster’s for “permissiveness” had not actually read the dictionary, or had given it only cursory inspection. The first critics in effect reviewed the news release, and the later ones simply picked up where they had begun. Jacques Barzun, a noted scholar and member of the editorial board of the American Scholar, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, attended a meeting in which every member of the board demanded that the magazine indicate “their common disapproval” of the dictionary. Barzun wrote: “Never in my experience has the Editorial Board desired to reach a position. What is even more remarkable, none of those present had given the new dictionary more than a casual glance, yet each felt that he knew how he stood on the issue that the work presented to the public.” As Skinner says, “the vilification of ‘Webster’s Third’ had reached the point where even the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society felt no compunction about denouncing a dictionary its officers freely acknowledged not having read.”

’The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published’ by David Skinner (Harper)

Four decades later, a new instance of critical sloppiness made it into print. David Foster Wallace, whom Skinner rather sarcastically calls “the most celebrated novelist of his generation and a much-ballyhooed essayist,” sharply criticized “Webster’s Third” in an article published in 2001, an article loaded with inaccuracies. Skinner: “Even as he bragged about being the type of incorrigible nerd who actually reads the introductions to dictionaries and takes languages disputes very, very seriously, the great literary mind of his generation failed to open ‘Webster’s Third’ before trying to quote from it.”

In all of this there are lessons aplenty for all too many of us, among them (a) never, ever take a news release at face value and (b) look before you leap. Led by editorialist fussbudgets at the New York Times, the press fell all over itself to denounce a dictionary about which the denouncers knew next to nothing. “Ain’t” was only the beginning:

“After the botched handling of ‘ain’t,’ ‘Webster’s Third’ was being condemned for including any and all words its critics didn’t like, as if the dictionary were responsible for their existence in the first place. In Life magazine’s complaints about ‘hain’t’ and ‘heighth,’ ‘Webster’s Third’ was treated as culpable even for including words explicitly labeled dialectical. And in constantly evoking ‘Webster’s Second’ to express their revulsion for ‘Webster’s Third,’ critics tended to expose the full range of their ignorance. ‘Orientate,’ ‘upsurge,’ ‘finalize,’ and the suffix ‘-wise’ were all included in ‘Webster’s Second,’ and none were [sic] so labeled there to suggest an inferior status.”

I insert “sic” after “none were” partly because to an old-fashioned person such as myself, “none” is a singular pronoun derived from “no one,” in accordance with which Skinner should have written “none was” — but partly with tongue in cheek because, as Skinner points out, the language is in a state of flux in which usages constantly change. My online Merriam-Webster now defines “none” as “singular or plural in construction.” To me this is every bit as disagreeable as “like” employed to mean “as” or “presently” to mean “now,” but I know all too well that I am swimming against the tide. For the makers of dictionaries, the conflicts between proscription and permissiveness are never-ending, and the makers of “Webster’s Third” had to deal with them throughout the nearly three decades of preparation for the 1961 edition. They also had to deal with the equally endless conflicts between “standard” and “popular” English, i.e., conflicts between what Skinner calls “the language of the socially powerful” and the language spoken by ordinary people in ordinary contexts, language that often is called slang.

All of which is interesting, but Skinner takes an incredible amount of time getting around to it. He is nearly two-thirds of the way through his text before he turns his attention to the dictionary itself. After briefly introducing the subject at hand — the dictionary and the fuss it aroused — he wanders off into spasms of throat-clearing that are at best peripheral. There is far more than we need to know about William Allan Neilson, president of Smith College and editor in chief of “Webster’s Second,” and the amount of space that Skinner devotes to Dwight Macdonald borders on the breathtaking. To be sure, Macdonald’s fierce attack on “Webster’s Third” in the New Yorker was widely imitated by other, less talented writers, but do we really need a step-by-step tour through the evolution of his politics or his wardrobe? Presumably Skinner would say it’s necessary background, but I say it’s padding pure and simple.

There’s also the problem that Skinner is given to grammatical peculiarities. Presumably the phrase quoted above, “presenting a united front of America’s learned class,” actually means “presenting a united front for America’s learned class,” but that’s not what it says. I think I know what he’s saying in the following: “It didn’t occur to Macdonald . . . to question whether a magazine resume could double as a compass for locating the right and the good in politics,” but he sure picked a weird way to say it. Ditto for “a chaotic incident that would have required Evelyn Waugh to conjure.”

Maybe Skinner spent so much time with the nearly half-million words in “Webster’s Third” that they all got scrambled up in his head. Certainly there are moments when “The Story of Ain’t” reads that way.


America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published

By David Skinner

Harper. 349 pp. $26.99