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The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language,…

The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial… (2012)

by David Skinner

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Besides the two quibbles I already stated, I had some problems with this. It seems as though Skinner's starting point on the whole issue might have been David Foster Wallace's essay on the dictionary in [b:Consider the Lobster and Other Essays|6751|Consider the Lobster and Other Essays|David Foster Wallace|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344266666s/6751.jpg|2207382]. I say seems because Wallace is mentioned in the into (I think) and in the last chapter, and the essay isn't really discussed at length.

You know what is covered at length? The political, professional, and romantic history of Macdonald, a guy who wrote an essay bashing Webster's Third when it came out. By contrast, the actual business of crafting the new dictionary is given fairly short shrift. It is meticulous, and tedious. The editorial room was kept quiet. The most enlivening detail was that smoking was permitted in the restroom, which was therefor a common hang-out.

Yes, I'm nerdy, but I'm really interested in the dictionary stuff. At least as much as someone who's never been taught English grammar could be, because I never really did understand the "shall" versus "will" issue. And since "ain't" is in the title, I would have expected the history of it to be a little more detailed. [turns out "ain't" had appeared in dictionaries before the third, so no big news there]

There was good stuff, too, besides smoking in the boy's room, but I can't recall it. It was buried under a cast of a gazillion middle-aged white guys, and irrelevant (to my interests) details about a failed bid to take over Merriam-Webster. Overall digressive info usually appeals, but this felt like misdirection: here's trivia about [a:Mary MacCarthy|502603|Mary MacCarthy|http://www.goodreads.com/assets/nophoto/nophoto-F-50x66-2a9d702c2a0f483c9f7dd119cc28a9a7.jpg]'s romantic life, pay no attention to the dictionary behind the curtain.

To be fair, maybe it's not Skinner, maybe it's me. I'm an OED fan, after all. If you are, too, read [b:The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary|25019|The Professor and the Madman A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary|Simon Winchester|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1349070925s/25019.jpg|1628566].

Library copy. ( )
  Kaethe | Oct 16, 2016 |
Few decades have caused more controversy than the 1960s, a time of explosive change in which tradition and authority gave way to freedom - a sweeping transformation crystalized in the 1961 publication of "Webster's Third New International Dictionary".
  waltonlibrary | Jan 27, 2016 |
A fascinating cultural history and an insightful look at the politics of lexicography. ( )
  Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
Ultimately, I'm glad I read this book, but about a quarter of the way into it I was shouting expletives at the book and barely restraining myself from throwing it across the room. Part of the problem for me was that the chapters are so short (40 chapters in about 300 pages) and flit from one subject to another with little transition, so it was hard to get a handle on what the point of the book was. And Skinner's snide, oh-so-clever journalistic authorial voice didn't help either, as he mercilessly skewered anyone he could with any random fact about or quote from them he could shoehorn in, claiming that it told us all we needed to know about *that* person. Ultimately, though, I felt the stories coming together, as we started to see the linguists and literary intellectuals on a collision course that put Webster's Third square at the center of a bizarre culture war. So, I ended up getting something out of the book, and the chapter that perplexed or annoyed me were compensated for by the ones that were genuinely informative, or at least amusing.

A quote -- in Latin -- from Horace really shouldn't be accidentally attributed to Homer in a book that's gone through even one round of editing, though. ( )
  kleos_aphthiton | Feb 8, 2015 |
A rollicking romp through the fantastic (and mostly ridiculous) controversy surrounding the publication of Webster's Third International Dictionary in 1961. Skinner concentrates at first on the changes in lexicographical and linguistic thinking during the middle decades of the twentieth century, highlights the main characters in the drama (Webster's editor Philip Gove, critic Dwight Macdonald, and would-be acquirer of Merriam Webster, publisher James Parton), and outlines some of the kerfuffle which broke out over the dictionary when it was released. Skinner makes the case that much of this stemmed from an unfortunately-worded press release which snowballed and led to much condemnation of the dictionary by people who never even bothered to read it.

If you like accounts of lexicographical rumbles, this is very likely a book for you. I found it utterly fascinating. ( )
2 vote JBD1 | Nov 11, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
In his new book about America’s most controversial dictionary, David Skinner refers to the lexicographer Noah Webster Jr.’s belief that a common language could keep the nation politically and culturally united. “If the Civil War had not proven him wrong,” Mr. Skinner writes, “the controversy over Webster’s Third certainly would have given him second thoughts.”
added by marq | editNew York Times, JANET MASLIN (Oct 24, 2012)

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Skinnerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bozic, MilanCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stokes, LisaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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controversy, n. Dispute; debate; agitation of contrary opinions. A dispute is commonly oral, and a controversy in writing. Dispute is often or generally a debate of short duration, a temporary debate; a controversy is often oral and sometimes continued in books or in law for months or years.

Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828
For my wife, Cynthia
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When I started working on this book about Webster's Third and what may be the single greatest language controversy in American history, I envisioned using the occasion to offer my own take on what happened.
They say it is better to pronounce aunt like art.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062027468, Hardcover)

Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by the editor Philip Gove, Webster's Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating "artificial notions of correctness," basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary's revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called "the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars." Editors and scholars howled for Gove's blood, calling him an enemy of clear thinking, a great relativist who was trying to sweep the English language into chaos. Critics bayed at the dictionary's permissive handling of ain't. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the dictionary's scientific approach to language and its abandonment of the old standard of usage represented the unraveling of civilization.

Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain't describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:34 -0400)

"In 1934, Webster's Second was the great gray eminence of American dictionaries, with 600,000 entries and numerous competitors but no rivals. It served as the all-knowing guide to the world of grammar and information, a kind of one-stop reference work. In 1961, Webster's Third came along and ignited an unprecedented controversy in America's newspapers, universities, and living rooms. The new dictionary's editor, Philip Gove, had overhauled Merriam's long held authoritarian principles to create a reference work that had "no traffic with...artificial notions of correctness or authority. It must be descriptive not prescriptive." Correct use was determined by how the language was actually spoken, and not by "notions of correctness" set by the learned few. Gove's editorial approach had editors and scholars longing for Webster's Second. Reporters across the country sounded off on Gove and his dictionary. The New York Times complained that Webster's had "surrendered to the permissive school that has been busily extending its beachhead on English instruction," the Times called on Merriam to preserve the printing plates for Webster's Second, so that a new start could be made. And soon Dwight MacDonald, a formidable American critic and writer, emerged as Webster's Third's chief nemesis when in the pages of the New Yorker he likened the new dictionary to the end of civilization."--… (more)

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