Title: The Story of Ain't
Author: David Skinner
Year: 2012
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 978-0062027467

The earliest memory I have of what a contentious issue a dictionary can be is Samuel Johnson's definition of a patron, which I take the liberty to quote here: "...commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery". This was in a letter to the Earl of Chesterfield, who Mr. Johnson had written this letter hoping for support.

I did not think a dictionary was anything other than an automatically loved or at worst indifferently appreciated tool. This view began to change when I joined E2. I read a few entries about how people like Webster 1913 partly because it is not bound by copyright and partly because some of the definitions are quaint. Then I read an article somewhere about how someone has a favorite dictionary. I found that odd because it did not occur to me that dictionaries would differ according to publisher. And now after reading this book, I feel a bit dumb that it did not even occur to me that they would also differ according to edition.

This book is about Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary published in 1961. Its publication caused quite a furor, which (as evidenced by this book) is not over. Among the many accusations leveled at it is that it was permissive. Prior editions and other dictionaries had been prescriptive. Laying down the law not just on spelling and pronunciation, but on usage i.e. what is correct language and what is not. The 3rd took a different approach, a descriptive one. This decision was partly based on the increasing sophistication of linguistics which questioned many of the rules about correct usage. Linguistics argued that correctness lay in how a language is actually spoken by the majority of its speakers rather than in rules promulgated by some long dead self appointed "they". This would apply especially to English, since it doesn't have an analogue to the Académie Française, an institution dedicated to guarding the purity of French. That's where the title came from, the dictionary did not label ain't as vulgar or slang or any other denigrating label. While this view makes sense, and the editors of the 3rd argued that the dictionary is not the language, being just a record of words and their usage, I find myself siding a bit (even though at the end I see the error of my ways) with those who argued that a dictionary should be authoritative. The style of those who speak it best, meaning those who transmit information in the most comprehensible and/or attractive manner, should be taken as the model. I believe that function comes before form, but that does not mean that form should be jettisoned altogether.

Another reason why it was disliked is that since the editors had decided a dictionary is not "THE AUTHORITY", they had to make the decision not to try and make it all things to all men. Dictionaries before it had been a bit like encyclopedias. They'd had entries about eminent people and notable events. These were all cut out of the 3rd edition. The decision to do so was also based on a constraint. Many new words had been added to the language since the 2nd edition was published. Adding all those new words (many of them technical and scientific and thus requiring detailed definitions and thus space) would have made the dictionary impossibly huge. The editors wanted the book to be 1 volume.

The first few chapters of the book were short snippets about the men involved with the dictionary - the administrators, technicians, critics and supporters. Initially, the chapters did not seem to have much of a point because even though they were enjoyable reading, there was not much connection between the characters. However, after the dictionary was published and the uproar it generated was being discussed, it became easy to see why each named person's reaction was what it was since the person had been described in a bit of detail. With their credentials already established, their stance was thus if not authoritative, at least credible.

As I said, I enjoyed reading the profiles of the various actors. I imagined them all looking like Edward R. Murrow, or rather, how he was depicted by David Strathairn in the film Good Night, and Good Luck. I imagined that when at home, they would all sit around in suits, smoking pipes. Their offices would all look like sets on Mad Men. And since that was the boom period of the ad agencies, they would all be well read and well spoken. This was another criticism of the dictionary. The previous edition had an academic as its managing editor. The 3rd, had a professional. A lot of the criticism thus came from self styled intellectuals who bemoaned the trendy flavor, saying it lacked the poetry of its predecessor because since it was full of contemporary words, the usage of those words was from contemporary people or contemporary works. It was argued that magazines, film stars and sports people were not worth quoting because they were low class, mass culture. Harper, the magazine, was specifically mentioned as a pretentious publication that had ideas above its station. I found that bit both funny, because now, reading magazines like Harper is seen as a mark of culture; and pretentious because the person criticizing it was a writer for magazines like Harper and just because it is a new magazine does not mean it lacks cachet. The person who made that criticism, Dwight Macdonald, was a snob who fancied himself part of the upper class and while deploring the masses' lack of class, then turned around and sneered at the efforts of those same masses to learn "high culture". I thought that was irrational and I wished he would have gone to the UK and been snobbed. He had already criticized the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and a series called Great Books compiled by 2 academics - Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler (both of whom were philosophers and teachers). His self regard was punctured by many, including Trotsky who quipped "Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege." I am also being irrational because while criticizing Mr. Macdonald, I share his sentiments. However, I understand the sensibleness of describing language as it is, not as it ought to be.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I probably would have enjoyed being a lexicographer. The author describes the work as boring and the offices as quiet. However, that sounds like just my kind of thing.

The book is a slim volume, just 300 pages. It is highly recommended.

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