The Magazine

Wars of Words

The story behind the stories about Webster’s Third.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Of the making of books, Ecclesiastes informs us, there is no end. But of some books, perhaps, there should never have been a beginning. One such book, or so many believed when it first appeared, was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. When published in 1961, it was mocked by the New York Times, mauled by Life, dismantled by the Atlantic, and (in the Mafia sense) whacked by the New Yorker, which turned loose Dwight Macdonald, a famous hit man of the day, to do the job. Other, lesser media piled on, agreeing that the new dictionary was a grave mistake. 

Students with dictionary, Chubb Library, Ohio University, ca. 1961

mahn center for archives and special collections, ohio university libraries

Not all the criticism was negative. Positive reviews appeared in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Publishers’ Weekly, and Editor & Publisher. Further support arrived, rather like a belated cavalry unit, in scholarly journals. But such was the vehemence of the attacks that they tended to drown out the praise for Webster’s Third (henceforth W3). The new dictionary was charged with betraying tradition through extreme verbal promiscuity and egregiously lapsed standards, and thereby, not to put too fine a point on it, aiding and abetting the decline of the West on its by-no-means-leisurely slide into barbarity. 

The first mistake the Merriam-Webster Company, publisher of W3, made was in its initial publicity release, which suggested that the new dictionary approved the use of the word “ain’t”—which it didn’t, not entirely, not really. The press release failed to note that, in the dictionary itself, “ain’t” was declared “substandard” English and was “disapproved by many and [was] more common in less educated speech.” The putative respectability of “ain’t” under the aegis of W3 was a point that headline writers glommed onto with much glee. Mario Pei’s review of the dictionary in the New York Times Book Review of October 22, 1961, carried the title “ ‘Ain’t’ Is In, Raviolis Ain’t.” 

This faux pas obscured the immense effort that had gone into W3. Produced at vast expense, the new dictionary was the work of a full-time editorial staff of more than a hundred people, along with the contributions of hundreds of outside consultants. The dictionary included more than 450,000 re-written entries; 100,000 or so were words not in Webster’s Second International Dictionary (W2) or any other Merriam-Webster publication. W3 contained a vast number of new illustrations, synonym articles, etymologies, tables of special information, a pronunciation guide, and more. 

Promotion of W3 emphasized its contemporaneity, noting its more than 200,000 usage citations employed to show not only what words mean, but how they are used by ordinary people—not just important writers and statesmen. “In this way,” the editor in chief of W3 wrote, “the language comes alive for the reader, and presents a fascinating mirror of our life and times. Word meanings become clearer and easier to understand.” Whereas the more literary W2 tended to avail itself of citations from great figures in English and American literature, W3 was more likely to use citations from Betty Grable or Walter Winchell or Polly Adler, the bordello madam and author of A House Is Not a Home

The deliberate—one might almost say militant—contemporaneity of W3 was, for many of its critics, another part of the problem. Fewer ana-chronisms were included—the cutoff date was 1755, the publication year of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary—though such words were not eliminated if they retained a place in literature. The line between slang and standard English seemed often to be blurred in W3. To accommodate space—the new dictionary weighed in at nearly 14 pounds—the pronouncing gazetteer was removed, as were proper-name and place-name entries, and other information contained in W2 but thought by the editors of W3 to be essentially encyclopedic.

What especially set critical tempers aflame was the elimination of the trad-itional labels of derogation used in W2: colloquial, erroneous, incorrect, and illiterate. These were replaced in W3 by substandard and nonstandard. The first, substandard, in the words of the editors, “indicates status conforming to a pattern of linguistic usage that exists throughout the American language community,” while non-standard was “used for a very small number of words that can hardly stand without some status label but are too widely current in reputable context to be labeled substandard.” The wobbliness of these definitions suggested that something was up. It was thought to be the influence on W3’s editor and staff of structural linguistics, also known as the new science of linguistics, then having its effect on the loosening standards of the teaching of English in schools. 

Under the leadership of such academics as Leonard Bloomfield and Charles C. Fries, linguistics in the United States had all but replaced
the older discipline of philology, which dealt with the structure, historical development, and relationships of language parts between and amongst different languages. The new linguistics was primarily concerned with recording how language changes, and how it is used in quotidian life. For the linguists there is no such thing as a bad word; there are just words—all of them, in their own right, interesting. W2 and the older dictionaries had pretensions to being authoritative, and tended to be predominately prescriptive, informing readers which words were used by educated people and which not. W3 was more egalitarian and descriptive. 

The publication of W3 was, in fact, a major skirmish in the war between the presciptivists and the descriptivists. A full history of that war is provided in Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars (2011), previously reviewed in these pages (“Ain’t Necessarily So: Who Speaks for the English Language?” by Jack Lynch, February 6, 2012). In formulating the essential difference between the two sides, Hitchings writes that the prescriptivists “believed that language could be remodeled, or at least regularized; they claimed that reason and logic would enable them to achieve this.” The descriptivists, on the other hand, “saw language as a complicated jungle of habits that it would be impossible to trim into shape,” and thus it was best neither arranged hierarchically nor judged for value, but recorded and understood. The prescriptivists sought to be definitive; the descriptivists were content to be reportorial. 

“Prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” are labels for positions on the restraints that ought (or ought not) to be placed upon language, but they do not account for actual practice. No one talks or writes along purely prescriptive or descriptive lines. Some prefer correctness and understated formality over let-’er-rip informality, and many others, perhaps today the majority, do not much care. I, myself, find a certain elegance in English correctly deployed, and a pleasure in getting the little distinctions (between compose and comprise, imply and infer, lay and lie, each other and one another) right, and I enjoy the small ping of precision that sounds when I have been able to find the perfect word to complete a sentence. 

The war between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists, though it rages on, may have all along been a false war. The conflict, such as it is, is between science and art. The descriptivists claim to have a scientific interest in language and how it is used, while the interest of the prescriptivists is largely artistic. The descriptivists wish to study and understand language—the prescriptivists want to use it well.

In The Story of Ain’t, David Skinner, a former assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard and current editor of Humanities, the quarterly magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has chronicled the making of W3 and the rocky reception that greeted it upon its entrance into the world. His account of what he calls “the most controversial dictionary ever published” is comprehensive and evenhanded, and written in a clear and jaunty style. 

Skinner begins with the publication of Webster’s Second New International Dictionary in 1934, and takes his readers through the 1930s and past World War II, onward to the appointment in 1950 of Philip Gove as editor of W3. He recounts the jarring reception of the new dictionary, and ends with the extended and ultimately abortive attempt of the American Heritage Company to acquire the Merriam-Webster Company—an attempt largely based on the assumption that W3 had greatly weakened it. Skinner provides portraits of the leading players—lexicographers, linguists, critics, publishing executives—and their radically differing points of view on the controversy stirred by W3. What in less skilled hands might have been arid and parochial in David Skinner’s becomes a lively account of a subject of interest to anyone concerned about the English language in America. 

Serious dictionary-making in the United States began with Noah
Webster (1758-1843). A fierce nationalist, Webster held that a new nation deserved a new language, and his first contribution to that endeavor was to Americanize English spelling. He disliked the English, especially Samuel Johnson, England’s leading lexicographer. Webster’s American Spelling Book (1786), later changed to The Elementary Spelling Book (1829), went through many editions. In 1806, he brought out A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language; in 1825, a much-enlarged edition was published entitled An American Dictionary of the English Language which added many specifically American words and sought to standardize American pronunciation. 

An estimable autodidact, Webster is said to have learned the rudiments of 26 languages in order to supply etymologies for the entries to his dictionary. He lost money on the dictionary and, because of it, spent much of his life in debt. When Webster died, his copyrights were taken over by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. 

G. & C. Merriam, later Merriam-Webster, brought out many expanded versions of Webster’s original dictionary, calling its 1890 edition Webster’s International. Various volumes spun off this original work, perhaps the most financially successful among them the Webster’s Collegiate series, begun in 1898 and now in its 11th edition (and said still to sell roughly a million copies annually). Easily its most impressive work was Webster’s New International Dictionary, published in 1909 and then as an expanded (to 600,000 entries) version in 1934. This dictionary, W2, was the stick most critics used to beat W3. At the close of his attack on W3, for example, the Life editorialist wrote that he planned to hang on to W2 “awhile for little matters of style, good English, winning at Scrabble and suchwise.”

Earlier dictionaries sought to delimit and to discriminate, and, above all, to be definitive. W3 set out, instead, to show not only how language should be used, but how it actually is used. The decisive difference here is between the ought and the is. What made for most of W3’s problems is that most people go to dictionaries to learn the ought: for knowledge of how a word ought to be spelled, and what it ought to mean. The W3 emphasized, instead, how the meanings of words change and how wide has been the variation of their everyday use. 

W3, as David Skinner writes, was 

not an encyclopedia, not an atlas, not an international directory of history’s big shots, not a dramatis personae of every character in Western literature, not an index of epithets and literary allusions, not a class system that could be counted on to disdain certain kinds of words used by certain kinds of people, not a record of all those misinformed rules of grammar that have no basis in actual usage, not some pompous, overreaching, editorializing, know-it-all windbag of a dictionary that takes its direction from the prejudices of the day while giving short shrift to words, the one thing it should be intensely serious about.

 

This passage makes Skinner seem an advocate of W3 and its organizing principles. He is not—at least not uncritically so. In fact, he doesn’t really tip his mitt about his own position, which makes his book less an argument than the account of an amused observer. This account features lots of intellectual snobbery, pedantry, bullying, and priggishness. Neither a prescriptivist nor a descriptivist, Skinner, in The Story of Ain’t, is perhaps best described as a meteoro-logist of storms in teacups. 

Once Merriam-Webster decided upon a third edition of its great dictionary, the first thought was to hire a man of established and well-known intellectual attainment: J. Robert Oppenheimer was one name under consideration; H. L. Mencken was another; Jacques Barzun, who would later attack W3 (and who died last month at 104), a third. They settled instead on a man with the W. C. Fieldsian name of
W. Freeman Twaddell, a professor
of German at Brown who didn’t last long in the job. Before he departed, Twaddell wrote a memo saying that no great name was needed to edit W3, for the staff on hand “is a force of the first order—anonymous and somewhat awe-inspiring.” Not a celebrity-intellectual, in other words, but a true lexicographer was Twaddell’s recommendation for the editorship of W3

The man they chose, Philip Gove, was a hire, as we should now say, blithely turning a verb into a noun, from within the company. He had a Ph.D., but a less-than-successful career teaching English at NYU. Claiming to be neither a linguist nor a lexicographer, he applied for a job at Merriam-Webster and was taken on as an assistant editor. He climbed the masthead to associate and then managing editor, and ended as editor in chief for W3 in 1952. In an odd combination of the casual and the formal, his children (as Skinner reports) called him by his first name, but he was never known as anything other than Mr. Gove in the office. 

The mission of W3 was to supply, in Gove’s words, “the widest possible coverage of standard language,” as well as to “keep step with linguistic advance.” As Skinner nicely puts it, for Gove, “a dictionary was not the language; a dictionary, even an unabridged dictionary, was only a selective inventory of lang-uage.” A dictionary, Gove held, “should have no traffic with guesswork, prejudice, or bias, or with artificial notions of correctness and superiority. It must be descriptive and not prescriptive.” For Gove, a dictionary was “a faithful recorder” of language, and “cannot expect to be any longer appealed to as an authority.”

The question was whether Gove’s ideal dictionary was also the dictionary the ordinary reader wanted. According to research, people used dictionaries to find out (in order of frequency): the meanings of strange words, the secondary meanings of familiar words, the correct spelling of words, and, finally, guidance on how to pronounce words. Did W3 answer these needs? Given the utilitarian and conservative tendencies of people who purchase dictionaries, the management at Merriam-Webster was worried that W3 was less a useful dictionary than a work of scholarship. 

Skinner also describes the intellectual drudgery that went into the making of W3. “It was,” he writes, “intellectual work that could rarely be done without a large amount of formal education, but more than a few highly educated people of vaguely literary bent found the work too boring to accept.” For “the saboteurs of Springfield,” as Wilson Follett, one of W3’s attackers, called the editors, the hours were long and dreary. A fair amount of time was spent searching for contemporary citations to illustrate new usages for old words. “Readers,” Skinner writes, “were expected to scan, more than any other literature, contemporary non-fiction: newspapers, magazines, learned journals, popular science titles, house organs, annual reports, mail-order catalogs, college catalogs, transportation schedules, bulletin boards, menus, food containers, and owner’s manuals.” 

Then there was the writing of definitions, which had to be done with a comprehensive sweep and a careful dialectical neutrality. W3 eschewed the generalizing definitions of W2 in favor of what Skinner called “contextual defining,” which featured “illustrations and quotations to illuminate a word’s actual range of meaning and usage.” All definitions had to be impartial, with no implicit editorializing, such as W2 permitted. Apaches could no longer be defined as “Nomads, of warlike disposition and relatively low culture,” nor Aleuts as “a peaceable, semi-civilized people.” 

The attacks on W3 didn’t seem to slow its sales. Herbert Morton, in The Story of Webster’s Third (1994), reported that by mid-1993, W3’s “total sales—domestic and international—had exceeded 2.5 million copies, far greater than the sales of any other unabridged dictionary of the English language.” W3 had in its favor the vast increase in the number of people going to college, and hence in need of a dictionary. Today, W3 has serious rivals in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; the latter, according to Amazon.com, appears at present to be outselling W3. 

As long ago as 1993, according to Herbert Morton, there were no plans to create a Webster’s Fourth New International Dictionary. If serious work on the creation of a W4 is now underway, it is not being much ballyhooed. Perhaps this is not the best time for producing a grand new dictionary. Many computers now supply dictionaries at no extra cost. W3 is itself available as an iPod, iPad, and Android app, and Google will look up any word about which one is uncertain. Besides, precision in the use of language, of the kind an excellent dictionary is supposed to help provide, is not a notable feature of our age. 

A contemporary dictionary would have to deal with political correctness, which means that many words could scarcely be defined at all, since the assumption behind much political correctness is that these words shouldn’t be permitted to exist in the first place. Obscenity in spoken language, even in such public domains as television, is now so common as scarcely to qualify as slang. Any attempt to be magisterial would, in our day, be scoffed at. Steven Pinker, the chairman of the usage panel for the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, writes in its introduction: “If you are using this dictionary as the official rulebook of English meaning and pronunciation, prepare for a disappointment.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, for all its flaws, may be the last great general dictionary we shall ever see.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of Essays in Biography.