The Story of Ain’t

The story of The Story of Ain’t began some years back when I was asked to join the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. This little honor seemed undeserved in my case, but I am opportunistic, so I accepted, with the private caveat that I would try to learn more about usage and language in general. And, in a more deliberate manner than before, I began to read and sometimes review books by linguists—Geoffrey Nunberg, Steven Pinker, John McWhorter, David Crystal, George Lakoff—and I became a regular reader of Language Log.

Of course, I read other things as well. When David Foster Wallace died in December of 2008, I tried once again to read Infinite Jest. For what must have been the fourth or fifth time, it didn’t take. After fifty or sixty pages of the masterpiece, I gave up. One of my editorial colleagues suggested I take a look at Wallace’s 2001 essay on usage and dictionaries.

“Tense Present” was long, frenetic, and hilariously damning. I devoured it. Sat up and reread it two or three times. But it left me wanting to know more about Webster’s Third, this incredibly dumb-sounding dictionary that Wallace discussed, along with its rather odd-sounding editor, Philip Gove. Basically, I wanted to know whether they actually deserved Wallace’s ostentatious, though entertaining, abuse.

Wallace’s essay is framed as an introduction to the “seamy underbelly” of lexicography by a determined dictionary and usage snob—a “snoot” is the name Wallace gives this type of person. Infinite Jest, too, suggests the author, like one of his characters, has spent bizarre amounts of time studying minute distinctions between various editions of Webster’s Collegiate and memorizing long stretches of the Oxford English Dictionary. But, despite all this snooty expertise, Wallace’s essay said several things about Webster’s Third that did not hold up.

He mentioned several dubious English-language terms that Webster’sThird supposedly endorsed, and he went to town on Gove’s introduction to Webster’s Third, specifically five truisms about language that Gove had expounded. Wallace treated each of the five points with more derision than the last. It reminded me of that old philosophy seminar put-down: “That’s not right; that’s not even wrong.”

The essay was fun, so fun it was a little hard to believe.

I looked to see if the library at the National Endowment for the Humanities (where I work) had a copy of Webster’s Third and found a record for Herbert Morton’s NEH-supported book on Philip Gove and the controversy the dictionary led to. A good but dour study, it offered an impressive defense of Gove and Webster’s Third. On page 206, I found a partial answer to Wallace. The five truisms Wallace had said were from the “now-classic” introduction to Webster’s Third were not in Webster’s Third at all. They were not even written by Gove.

And other errors turned up. Wallace said Webster’s Third had included such terms as heighth and irregardless “without any monitory labels.”

Which was incredibly misleading. In Webster’s Third, heighth was labeled a “chiefly dialectal variant” and irregardless was labeled “nonstandard,” the Third’s most prohibitive label. Wallace said Webster’s Third had “endorsed” OK. But even this seemed suspicious. OK had been around for a long time before Webster’s Third. Twenty-seven years earlier, Webster’s Second had merely labeled it colloquial.Webster’s Third had dropped the colloquial label, but otherwise its treatment of the term was almost identical. Wallace also made it sound as if Gove had coined the terms prescriptive and descriptive, for the opposing approaches to lexicography and usage, with a comment he made in 1961, but both terms were already in Webster’s Third (along with prescriptivist and descriptivist), which meant they had been in circulation well before Gove used them.

Morton’s book showed that the popular criticism of Webster’s Third was actually rife with such misunderstanding. In 1961, Life magazine had made the same mistaken claims about heighth and irregardless. Morton also explained how Merriam itself had contributed to the critical errata with its initial press release, misquoting the dictionary’s entry for ain’t, provoking  an incredible round of denunciations in major newspapers.

Very quickly, I realized two things: One, I was going to write an essay on Morton’s book and Webster’s Third; two, I was going to try to publish my own book on the subject.

At first, I thought of the narrative as a detective story about the long string of mistakes stretching from the initial press release in 1961 through Wallace’s criticism in 2001, but visiting the Papers of Philip Gove at the University of Wyoming got me very interested in Philip Gove and the thinking behind Webster’s Third. Some basic questions formed in my mind: What was Gove like? What made his dictionary so weird and hard to understand, but then other times chockful of great information? What kind of dictionary did the critics want instead of Webster’s Third?

And the more people I talked to the more I realized that it was worth telling the prehistory of Webster’s Third: what was going on in the language in the decades leading up to 1961 and what was going on in linguistics during those same years. How was American grammar and usage affected by the Twenties, by the Great Depression, by World War Two, and by the GI Bill?

How did we go from a country whose president said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” to a country whose president warned of “the military-industrial complex.” One sounded like he had been raised on letters of Cicero; the other like he was studying for a sociology final.

And where did dictionaries fit into this story? Bookending this period, G. and C. Merriam Co., the corporate successors to Noah Webster’s legacy as America’s founding lexicographer, produced two unabridged dictionaries: Webster’s Second in 1934 and Webster Third in 1961.

Webster’s Second was puritanical and uncontroversial, created for the living room and the classroom. Its pronunciations represented “formal platform speech,” and its pages contained almost no dirty words. It labored to stay on the right side of schoolmarms and grammarians.

Webster’s Third was scientific in method and, at the same time, surprisingly current on popular culture. It contained almost all the dirty words and among its quotations were such linguistic authorities as Betty Grable and Mickey Spillane. It had not been designed for either the living room or the classroom. It did not play nice with what Gove called “artifical notions of correctness.” Many people—including a fair number of journalists and literary figures—hated it.

Shortly after Webster’s Third was published, the New York Times called on Merriam to take it back and start over. Dwight Macdonald in the New Yorker compared it to the end of civilization. The Editorial Board of the American Scholar didn’t even bother reading it before deputizing Jacques Barzun to denounce Webster’s Third as “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.”  Meanwhile, James Parton and the American Heritage Company sought to use the controversy to win a controlling position among Merriam stockholders and take over America’s most venerable dictionary brand.

The Story of Ain’t is about the people who made Webster’s Third and the people who loathed it, and all that was going on in the language and in linguistics in the years leading up to 1961. It is a detective story, but it is also a cultural history with an amazing set of characters. I wrote it in order to understand what led to the controversy and why it remains a singular episode in the history of dictionaries and the history of America culture. And I wrote it because I thought it would be fun to sit back and watch the fireworks of a great intellectual controversy.

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  1. […] and Geoffrey Nunberg. They’ve discussed great books like Found in Translation, Woe is I, and The Story of Ain’t. And they’ve covered a variety of interesting language-related topics such as grammatical gender, […]

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