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.