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The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published

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Overview

Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by 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." Critics bayed at the dictionary's permissive handling of ain't. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed ...

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The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published

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Overview

Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by 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." Critics bayed at the dictionary's permissive handling of ain't. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the abandonment of the old standard 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Almost by definition, dictionaries don't make front page news. That changed, however, with the 1961 publication of Webster's Third Dictionary. Now largely forgotten and lost in the looms in history, this mammoth volume caused front page ruckuses across the country and, indeed, even in staid old London town. What roused the pundits was the sheer audacity of an enterprise that shamelessly assimilated slang into its formerly august pages. Story of Ain't returns us to the golden yesteryears before texting, sexting, tweets, gaydar, tag hags and tramp stamps, when word arbiters still naively believed that language was a finite, controllable thing. By recreating that bodacious brouhaha, author David Skinner achieves a feat of enviable time travel.

Booklist (starred review)
“A compelling reminder of the cultural significance of words and word-making.”
BookPage
“A fascinating, highly entertaining cultural history that will enchant an audience beyond word nerds....Skinner nimbly, concisely—and without academic dryness—traces the everyday changes that shaped what came out of Americans’ mouths and into our dictionaries.”
Associated Press Staff
“An immensely entertaining history…Skinner manages to transform this somewhat arcane lexicographical dispute into a real page turner…Skinner ably and amusingly captures the hysterical tone of the bitter public quarrel while suggesting that it foreshadowed many of the arguments over values and standards that we’re still fighting about today.”
Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Skinner does a fine job detailing the controversy that greeted Webster’s Third, but he is even stronger when describing the internal politics at Merriam and the mechanics of revising a dictionary.”
Boston Globe
“A highly entertaining, thoughtful new book.”
Columbus Dispatch
“Skinner has written an entertaining book about a controversy that still lingers and throws light on how emotional our ties to language are….a funny and informative account.”
Booklist
"A compelling reminder of the cultural significance of words and word-making."
Weekly Standard
“…comprehensive and evenhanded, and written in a clear and jaunty style…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.”
Financial Times
“Skinner is good on the development of 20th-century linguistics and on the interplay between America’s language and its sense of itself.”
New York Times Book Review
“An engrossing account of the continuing ruckus over Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.”
Harper's
“…spry cultural history”
New York Times
“[Skinner] provides well-argued critiques of the orthodoxies that define language studies”
New York Journal of Books
“Mr. Skinner weaves a true tale fascinating not just to linguists and lexicographers, but to anyone interested in the evolution of our language during a critical period in America’s History.”
Shelf Awareness
“...delightful new book on lexicography…Skinner leaves no doubt as to the importance of Webster’s Third as the game-changer in dictionary standards and the impetus for an American cultural metamorphosis.”
Hillsdale Collegian
The Story of Ain’t is a book about words, the national character, and the inevitability of change. And it’s so fun, you might not even realize that you’re joining the debate.”
Simon Winchester
“It takes true brilliance to lift the arid tellings of lexicographic fussing into the readable realm of the thriller and the bodice-ripper. With his riveting account…David Skinner has done precisely this, taking a fine story and honing it to popular perfection.”
Geoffrey Nunberg
“The flap over Webster’s Third in 1961 was a never-to-be-repeated episode in American cultural history…. David Skinner tells it brilliantly…as he brings to life the odd cast of characters who played a role in the affair.”
Christopher Buckley
“A fascinating account of a major paradigm shift in the American language, when a group of bold lexicographers decided to tell it like it is and causing a huge cultural rumpus. This is more than just a story about a new edition of a dictionary.”
P.J. O'Rourke
“David Skinner tells the tale of a great battle in the 1960s War Between the Real and the Ideal. It was a conflict with realists laying claim to idealism and idealists asserting realism and vice versa. Skinner makes it all clear.”
Toby Lester
“A cultural story as much as a linguistic one, teeming with colorful characters and big ideas, The Story of Ain’t is a must read for anybody who loves language.”
From The Critics
“Mr. Skinner weaves a true tale fascinating not just to linguists and lexicographers, but to anyone interested in the evolution of our language during a critical period in America's History.”
Publishers Weekly
Humanities editor Skinner, who is on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, offers a highly entertaining and intelligent re-creation of events surrounding the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary by G. & C. Merriam. The dictionary, assembled at a cost of .5 million, included a press release from Merriam’s president Gordon J. Gallan, which said the work contained “an avalanche of bewildering new verbal concepts.” The new dictionary embraced informal English in 450,000 total entries, including 100,000 new words, including clunk (from Mickey Spillane), cool (from jazz), and snafu (from WWII). Editor Philip Gove’s break with tradition, the refusal to distinguish between good language and bad, outraged academics and editorial writers, setting in motion what Skinner calls “the single greatest language controversy in American history.” A Chicago Tribune headline announced “Saying Ain’t Ain’t Wrong.” Life labeled Webster’s Third “a non-word deluge,” and it was vilified as “literary anarchy.” To probe why it triggered such volcanic eruptions, Skinner shows how Gove sought to construct a modern, linguistically rigorous dictionary and details how Dwight Macdonald and other critics sought to destroy it. The result is a rich and absorbing exploration of the changing standards in American language and culture. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn Agency. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Webster's Third New International Dictionary (W3) was published in 1961. Press reaction was harsh, and the public debate on the subject was included in James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt's Dictionaries and That Dictionary (1962). W3's treatment of ain't was particularly scrutinized thanks to misleading material distributed by the publisher's press agents. Criticism focused on W3's lack of "prescriptivism," i.e., that the dictionary should make judgments on what's proper and what's not. Skinner is editor of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Humanities magazine, and this book began as a 2009 article there. That article was a good, concise discussion. In book form, Herbert Morton's The Story of Webster's Third (1994) thoroughly and learnedly covered all this. Skinner's book, on the other hand, flits among topics and spends endless pages on the life story of Dwight Macdonald, the critic who wrote a long, damning account of W3 in The New Yorker—the book is as much about Macdonald as anything else. VERDICT Readers will be better served by the two books named above. This one is unorganized and quite shallow.—Michael O. Eshleman, Kings Mills, OH
Kirkus Reviews
Former Weekly Standard editor and current Humanities magazine editor Skinner debuts with the story of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, whose 1961 publication prompted assorted pundits to declare that the end of civilization was nigh. Imagine a time when a dictionary could animate the media as much as a political sex scandal. It wasn't that long ago. Skinner, who serves on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, knows dictionaries and how they are made and devotes a large portion of his attention to the nouns-and-verbs aspects of lexicography. (How are words discovered and selected? How are definitions written? Where do the examples come from?) The author also profiles the people who made the decisions about the book, including Dr. Philip Gove, editor-in-chief for the project, and his predecessors and successors. The author also sketches the stories of the dictionary's harshest critics, principally Dwight Macdonald, whose biography Skinner distributes throughout. He examines the powerful cultural forces involved, including the rise of structural linguistics and cultural relativism, the effects of TV and movies on vocabulary, and the country's changing demographics. We learn why the F-bomb and others are not in the book, and why Gove changed the style of definitions, why he included so many varying pronunciations, and why he viewed the volume as descriptive rather than prescriptive. This latter function is what ignited critics, many of whom believed the lexicographers had caved and had no interest in maintaining standards. (The author points out that ain't was in many dictionaries, including Webster's Second.) Skinner carefully identifies the critics' errors and the lexicographers' missteps, and he explores the economics and politics of the dictionary business. Perhaps too much Macdonald and not enough logo-geekery, but a well-researched, even loving, look at our language and its landlords.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062027498
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 422,277
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David Skinner is a writer and editor living in Alexandria, Virginia. He writes about language, culture, and his life as a husband, father, and suburbanite. He has been a staff editor at the Weekly Standard, for which he still writes, and an editor of Doublethink magazine. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New Atlantis, Slate, the Washington Times, the American Spectator, and many other publications. Skinner is the editor of Humanities magazine, which is published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2012

    Don't bother

    Having heard about the book on NPR, and being interested in the language, I nevertheless found this pretty tedious. Most of the controversy revolves around structural linguistics, and I could never muster much interest for or against it. Condensed to a 30-page New Yorker article, this might hold the reader's interest.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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