The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and its Critics

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The publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961 set off a storm of controversy both in the popular press and in scholarly journals that was virtually unprecedented in its scope and intensity. The New York Times ridiculed the new dictionary's alleged failure to label slang in a now-famous editorial that began, "A passel of double-domes at the G. & C. Merriam Company joint in Springfield, Mass., have been confabbing and yakking for twenty-seven years...and now they have finalized...a new edition of a swell and esteemed book." The attack was joined by Life magazine, the Saturday Review, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and other magazines and newspapers across the country. Critics charged that Webster's Third had abandoned its responsibility to uphold standards of good English and that it would encourage permissiveness in the teaching of English. Rejoinders by the dictionary's editor, Philip Babcock Gove, and sympathetic journalists and scholars had little effect. Herbert Morton tells the story from the beginning, drawing on new sources: Gove's papers, the files of the publisher, and interviews with former staff members and participants in the controversy. He describes how the Third Edition was planned and put together by Gove, where it went astray, and how it was misunderstood and misinterpreted by its detractors. Later assessments showed that its flaws were exaggerated. It has come to be regarded by virtually all language experts as one of the great dictionaries of our time. This is a very human story as well as the first full account of an extraordinary episode in the annals of lexicography. The issues it brought to the fore are still alive and will be of interest to all those fascinated by the English language and by how it is recorded in our dictionaries.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...informed, rational and utterly persuasive...Now comes Herbert C. Morton with his splendid account of the book's making and its reception, a book that along with its spirited defense of Gove should make clear to the lay reader the aims and methods of lexicography, a business until now understood by almost no one." Washington Post Book World

"Herbert C. Morton's account of the affair is a chronicle of war to compare with the best....Although Morton is plainly in Gove's camp, even the most knuckle-rapping of purists should find his fine book profoundly rewarding." The Boston Sunday Globe

"...a well balanced and interestingly informative. As a book about a dictionary ought to be, it is decently written." Anthony Quinton, TLS

"...anyone who has an interest in the documentation of such things would be well served to obtain a copy....well-written and interestingly set forth." Laurence Urdang, Verbatim

"Only rarely has the process of lexicography been given such insightful and understanding treatment by a non-lexicographer as we find in Morton's book." Sharp News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521461467
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1994
  • Pages: 348
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Table of Contents

1. The best of times and the worst: a prologue; Part I. Philip Gove and the Genesis of Webster's Third: 2. Gove's formative years: the road to Springfield; 3. The Webster and Merriam tradition; 4. The new editor takes hold; Part II. The Making of the Dictionary: Gove's Intentions: 5. The meaning of words: definers at work; 6. The origins of words: the etymologist's task; 7. The sound of words and other matters; 8. Usage and final tasks; Part III. The War of Words: 9. Early Returns: the fuse is lit; 10. The controversy heats up; 11. 1962: calamity or calumny?; 12. Commercial intrusions: trademarks, takeover threats, competition; 13. Ideology and politics in the running debate; 14. The judgment of peers; Part IV. Sorting it All Out: 15. Gove and Webster's Third: the legacy; 16. Concluding words.
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