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The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published Paperback – 22 Oct 2013

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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (22 Oct. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062027492
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062027498
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.1 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,275,924 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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“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.” (Associated Press)

“An engrossing account of the continuing ruckus over Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.” (New York Times Book Review)

“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.” (Wall Street Journal)

“…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.” (Weekly Standard)

“…spry cultural history” (Harper's)

“[Skinner] provides well-argued critiques of the orthodoxies that define language studies” (New York Times)

“A highly entertaining, thoughtful new book.” (Boston Globe)

“Skinner is good on the development of 20th-century linguistics and on the interplay between America’s language and its sense of itself.” (Financial Times)

“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.” (New York Journal of Books)

“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.” (Columbus Dispatch)

“...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.” (Shelf Awareness)

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.” (Hillsdale Collegian)

“Skinner…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…a rich and absorbing exploration of the changing standards in American language and culture.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

“A compelling reminder of the cultural significance of words and word-making.” (Booklist (starred review))

“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.” (BookPage)

“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.” (Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlantic)

“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.” (Geoffrey Nunberg, University of California at Berkeley, emeritus chair of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, language commentator, "Fresh Air," NPR)

“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.” (Christopher Buckley, New York Times bestselling author of They Eat Puppies, Don't They? and Thank You for Smoking)

“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.” (P.J. O'Rourke, New York Times bestselling author of Holidays in Heck and Don't Vote--It Just Encourages)

“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.” (Toby Lester, author of Da Vinci's Ghost and The Fourth Part of the World)

From the Back Cover

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.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
An interesting read. But I found it hard to remember who was whom from chapter to chapter. And there are a lot of them.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 25 reviews
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
The War of Words 9 Oct. 2012
By Rob Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
What is the job of a dictionary? For most of us a dictionary is a tool; you see an unfamiliar word (or sometimes you want to learn about a familiar one), and you look it up to find the meaning. Perhaps because of the huge loom of language over every aspect of our lives and our relationships with others, dictionaries are felt to have an importance and power beyond just being big reference books. The philosophy of a dictionary's purpose was in dispute even in the mind of the lexicographer who composed the first great English dictionary, Samuel Johnson. Johnson thought as he began his monumental task that he would improve the way people used language; he not only would show words used in the right way, his illustrative quotations (one of the important hallmarks of his great work) would show them being used in the best way, by the choicest writers. As he toiled away at his big book, however, he began to realize that he could not fix or form the language; his dictionary would merely register how the language is used. The issue is not settled, and after all these centuries, it probably isn't going to be, but it sparked a particularly sharp (even nasty) controversy when in 1961 _Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language_ was published, raising loud denunciations and some measured praise. _The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published_ (Harper) by David Skinner tells comprehensively how _Webster's Third_ came to be and how it came to cause such a storm among intellectuals, who took their positions with utmost seriousness. It might seem a perfect tempest in a teapot, but Skinner has written an entertaining book about a controversy that still lingers and throws light on how emotional our ties to language are.

_Webster's Third_ would not be an ordinary dictionary update. How people spoke the language was the language, and there was no scientific reason to think that certain words or phrases were wrong; correctness depended merely upon usage. The usage would be measured by speakers of the language, and thus the dictionary would tend to get its citations of usage from Walter Winchell, Mickey Spillane, or Billy Graham. Tennyson and Pope might get in, but there would be less emphasis on literature. The _Third_ was not the first dictionary to list the troublesome "ain't"; people had been finding it and using its inclusion ("You see? It is right there in the dictionary after all!") as a justification for its use for years. The furor over the _Third_ was certainly not confined to its treatment of "ain't," but that is where the problems began, resulting in a newspaper and magazine skirmish about the dictionary, which was denounced as not only unscientific but as a grab for power for the left. It was described as "the longest political pamphlet ever." Newspaper editors had a heyday with headlines like "Ain't Nothing Wrong With the Use of Ain't," and columnists not only fretted over inclusion of that blighted word but by the inclusion of others like "upsurge" or "finalize." As Skinner points out, however, such words were in _Webster's Second_ and caused no furious editorials. He pays particular attention to a famous coruscating evaluation in _The New Yorker_ by Dwight MacDonald, who inveighed against the _Third_ as symbolic of how popular middlebrow culture was taking over what ought to be America's intellectual engines. The dictionary, Skinner writes, "was denounced in one newspaper, magazine, and trade publication after another, and the condemnation grew ever more dark, thunderous, and weird."

It is not a weakness that the controversy, taken with vendetta-like seriousness at the time but after all these years appearing to be much ado over almost nothing, comes only in the final chapters of the book. Skinner pays a lot of attention to all the personalities involved, and to the drudgery of making a dictionary. Procedures of compiling the dictionary were codified in dense "Black Books" which were highly confidential; if they left the building, they might get into the hands of unscrupulous competitors (and the dictionary business is sometimes savagely competitive). "The editorial offices at Merriam were always quiet," Skinner writes. "Production was constant, as the only machines in use whirred away silently in the heads of Merriam staff. Oral communication was reduced to a minimum. To interrupt a fellow editor, you handed him or her a note saying you needed to talk. The two of you then met in the hallway." That the quiet drudgery resulted in a firestorm fifty years ago makes this a funny and informative account.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
The "Ain't" Controversy Is Still Timely 11 Oct. 2012
By Timothy Weeks - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a book about the controversy of publicity roused by "Webster's Third." This is the edition that made the transition from showing proper English use, to simply representing current usage. The controversy became a battle in the "Culture War" of its time. Opponents of the new edition (many of whom had never read it) clamored about the deterioration of intellectual standards. Proponents vaunted the "scientific" value of the new edition.

For some, the controversy may seem minor. Who cares what's the ideology of a dictionary -- as long as it tells us what words mean? But for others -- either on the "right" or the "left" of the issue -- the issue remains paramount. The conversation may have moved away from "Webster's Third," but the essence of the controversy remains. We encounter it still in the media frenzies that surround teaching "Ebonics" in public school, the debate over cultural (il)literacy, and more generally, the discussion about the alleged "dumbing" of America.

Skinner never really weighs in on the controversy -- it seems he's content to document it. So readers are left to decide for themselves whether a dictionary should teach how words should be used, or more simply how they are already used. Either way, the book remains timely.

Those interested in "proper english" really should also own a copy of Fowler's utter classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford Language Classics). And if you relish the play of words, look at THE Book of Word Games: Parlett's Guide to 150 Great and Quick-to-Learn Word Games.

Hopefully this review was helpful.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
How a dictionary drove some people crazy 24 Jan. 2013
By Fezziwig - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a detailed and well-documented account of the controversy over the publication in 1961 of the third edition of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language (Webster's 3rd). It would replace the second edition published in 1934 (Webster's 2nd). I avoid describing Skinner's book as a "scholarly account," not because of any deficiency I found in his book, but because it might make the book sound dull and so suffused in detail as to discourage the average lay reader. As it is, I imagine that the potential audience for any book about the development of a dictionary to be a small one. In the case of this book, that would be a shame. Everyone who takes an interest in reading, words, and the power of words should find this story entrancing. Skinner describes an almost unbelievably negative reaction to the content of this new dictionary by the Merriam-Webster company. Some of the most influential voices in America (New York Times and other big-city papers, Life magazine and other popular magazines, powerful organizations like the American Bar Association, and many public intellectuals and university libraries) condemned the new edition of Webster's in often hyperbolic terms as a corrupting influence on American life, culture, and politics.

To help us understand the basis for this negative reaction to what became known as Webster's 3rd, Skinner takes us back a half century to the production of its predecessor, Webster's 2nd. The second edition of Webster's famous dictionary was published in 1934. Its editors produced this much-admired work without questioning a number of assumptions about what a dictionary should be: especially, without questioning the notion that a dictionary should be an authoritative source of information about the meaning and pronunciation of words. Later, this attitude would be described as prescriptive, ie, the dictionary should prescribe the correct use of words in the English language. It would be the final authority in any disputes about how to say or use in writing any word.

What happened between 1934 and 1961? In a word, change. Actually, of course, change had been taking place before 1934, but Webster's 2nd seemed to ignore that fact. The changes taking place in American society from the end of the Civil War and into the 20th Century and beyond were accelerating at a rapid pace. Changes in technology, in social mores, in politics, and daily life were affecting the American language. New words were being added, old ones became extinct, and more importantly the meanings of words and even their pronunciations were changing as Americans began using new media and as they became more mobile.

Something else, more subtle, was changing too: the way people thought. As democracy expanded and as science and technology increasingly affected daily life, the voices of authority were eroding, and people were beginning to ask for reasons to accept stated opinions, not only about words, but about everything. Inevitably the scientific frame of mind would change language and words. Linguistics, the scientific study of language was already in existence in 1934, but it would not begin to affect dictionary making until the old language experts, who were products of a Victorian culture, began to fade away. When it became clear to executives at Merriam-Webster somewhere in the late 1940s that the old standby was no longer adequate, they began to make plans for a new edition. They hired Philip B. Gove to shape the next Webster's to be published in 1961. Gove was a linguist, not a student of literature, and that made all the difference. His theory of what a dictionary should be was based on five concepts of linguistics: 1. Language changes constantly. 2. Change is normal. 3. Spoken language is the language. 4. Correctness rests upon usage. 5. All usage is relative.

These five concepts were not beliefs; they were facts. They had been verified by observation and evidence. It was not a matter of faith. In fact, Gove contrasted the scientific concepts of language change to religious belief in revelation. There is no outside source and sanction for language other than common usage. The notion of a "correct" manner of speaking and writing was irrelevant. A dictionary could no longer prescribe the correct usage of words; it could only describe the ways in which language is used in a society. The dictionary was no longer prescriptive of language; it was now descriptive of the way language is used by a people.

And this is what set off the firestorm. Those who had set themselves apart from the common herd by their manner of speech and writing suddenly felt their privileged position threatened by a dictionary, the very source of their authority. But, in spite of the relentless attacks, Webster's 3rd did have its defenders. Among these were the language scholar James Sledd and the author of a dictionary of usage, Bergen Evans. In defending the new dictionary, Evans cited that great 18th Century lexicographer and author of a model dictionary, Samuel Johnson. Johnson had said that lexicographers and grammarians "do not form, but register the language." And this is exactly what Gove and his linguistic lexicographers had done with the creation of Webster's 3rd.

This book is about as exciting as one could imagine for a story about the creation of a dictionary. What is missing? The book ends with the sense that Gove and Webster's 3rd won the battle in the end. But a whole half century has elapsed since the publication of that great book in 1961. What is missing is the denoument of this play. What effect did Webster's 3rd have on society, culture, literature, and, more specifically, the dictionary trade? Did subsequent publishers follow the lead of Webster's 3rd, or were they intimidated by the harsh criticism of that book? A brief glance at my Random House Unabridged, published in 1987, suggests that later dictionaries followed the lead of Webster's 3rd. Though there were some reactionaries who reprinted and attempted to breathe life into Webster's 2nd, it was clear that that book was a dinosaur, a product of an era that no longer existed. Webster's 2nd was a museum of words, pronunciations, and usage rules of a bygone era.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Not at all up to expectations 24 Jun. 2013
By backprop - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I enjoy stories of language, lexicon, and grammar. I fully expected The Story of Ain't to be a compelling read. But by page 100, I was thoroughly disengaged. Rather than weaving a rich narrative, the author is content to dispassionately enumerate the names and doings of scores upon scores of characters, never congealing them into any semblance of a story arc. Others have commented that they enjoyed his hands-off approach, but I would have found it invaluable had he acted as a guide, connecting the dots where they need to be connected, and making intelligent judgments about characters that really didn't belong.

The title piqued my interest, so I'll search for a book on a similar topic that takes a far different approach.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Word Wars 21 Jan. 2013
By Pierre R. Hart - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The immediate focus of this book is the publication of dictionaries in twentieth century America. It is, however, described in the context of the nations's culture. Specifically, the form and function of Webster's second and third editions of the "New InternationalDictionary of the English Language" are compared and contrasted.
Consistent with Noah Webster's original design, the Second Edition was intended as an authoritative reference,founded on what were considered as the educated standards of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Encyclopedic in coverage, it contained numerous entries for historical events and persons, as well as numerous illustrations of animals, including breeds of dogs. Despite the burgeoning vocabulary of a dynamic, technologically advanced society, "the dictionary business continued to operate on the assumption that it was possible to distill all that was worth knowing." #p. 60#
When the Merriman Company began to consider a revised Third Edition, it became apparent that much had changed and that the increased amount of relevant information made the old format unfeasible. More importantly, the rapidly expanding discipline of linguistics had challenged some of the premises on which dictionaries had been constructed. Colloquial, spoken English had encroached upon what had been regarded as the formal literary language. Words previously excluded or labeled "slang" had acquired new status. In what would subsequently be viewed as a revolutionary change in orientation, the Third Edition abandoned its prescriptive function to become a document reflecting established practice. Citations illustrating word usage no longer needed to be taken from representatives of high culture; they might equally be drawn from everyday sources. Pronuciation guides now acknowledged regional variations rather than insisting on a single New England standard.

Initial reactions to the new publication were stridently negative. In essence, they deplored the perceived degradation of the language and, by extension, culture generally. Foremost among these critics was Dwight Macdonald, a prominent mid-century man of letters. As did other negative reviewers, he saw the treatment of "ain't" as symptomatic of the dictionary's subversion of literary standards.

This otherwisecogent history of the lexicographic controvery is slightly marred by the amount of attention given to Macdonald's biography. His contribution to the debate, while significant was not always productive. As Skinner notes: "Macdonald had moved the controversy into an imaginary, almost mythical realm where minor details looked like world-destroying monsters." #p. 292# Yet the author devotes considerable space to the particulars of Macdonald's career and intellectual development, as though preparing the reader for his singular contribution to the debate.

In summary, an ecellent study that can be fully appreciated while skipping the Macdonald biograpical detail.
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