Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Book Review: THE STORY OF AIN'T by David Skinner (Harper Collins, 2012)

These days, we are inundated with so many sources of information (many of which are decidedly unreliable, but there you go) that it's difficult to believe that the release of a new "repository of knowledge" could engender intense controversy.  Fifty years ago, things were very different, as we learn in David Skinner's entertaining book about the violent (in an intellectual sense, anyway) reaction to the release of WEBSTER'S THIRD INTERNATIONAL UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY in 1961.  Public intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald and Jacques Barzun regarded the descriptivist tome, which broke dramatically with Webster's prescriptivist tradition of clearly separating "standard" and "nonstandard" language usages, as a harbinger of the end of civilization, or at least an American "high culture" that seemed to be imperiled by the development of "middlebrow" taste during the years before and after World War II.  While fully recognizing the overblown nature of many of these complaints, Skinner also admits that WEBSTER'S THIRD editor Philip Gove and his cohorts at Merriam-Webster badly mishandled the transition to the new methodology by failing to do a proper job of explaining why and how it had been done.  This PR bungling allowed the media of the day to jump on such trumped-up claims as the contention that WEBSTER'S THIRD had "officially" sanctioned the use of ain't, when in fact the truth was more complicated.

I first learned of this controversy while reading Henry Hitchings' book THE LANGUAGE WARS, which does a good job of describing the whole descriptivist-vs.-prescriptivist argument for the layperson.  Interestingly, no such caterwauling as that which greeted WEBSTER'S THIRD was heard when THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, which took a decidedly prescriptivist approach to describing the history and usage of words, was published in Britain.  One possible reason why the WEBSTER'S outcry was much greater was that editor Gove also decided to eliminate a good deal of encyclopedic material that had previously been included in the dictionary.  No longer having a single place to go to find lists of battles, names of famous characters in literature, etc. must have been quite disappointing for some people, and WEBSTER'S THIRD new approach to defining words (Gove preferred single-sentence definitions, which led to some gruesomely worded descriptions of such everyday words as air and door) must only have added to the sense of disorientation.

Skinner necessarily has to backtrack quite a long way in order to tell this story in full, but he manages to describe the development of linguistics as a tool for understanding American English, the history of the "English Language Arts" movement, the dramatic increase in American English's vocabulary during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and the lives and careers of the principal figures in this cerebral scrap without confusing the reader.  The closest thing to a true throughline in the tale is the story of Dwight Macdonald, an "impassioned aginner" who started his career as a radical in the 30s, maintained an idiosyncratically adversarial stance towards American culture throughout his life, yet still wound up delivering a diatribe against WEBSTER'S THIRD that would probably please Judge Antonin Scalia today.  In Macdonald's notorious essay attacking the dictionary, one can detect a fair amount of snobbery, an uneasy feeling that culture had become too accessible to (and, as a result, had been cheapened by) the American middle class.  Nowadays, the tastes of 50s America seem like those of a classic "golden age" to many of us, but a lot of eggheads (there's a 50s-ism for you) sneered at the masses' preferences.  The elite's disdain for WEBSTER'S THIRD as supposedly sanctioning slang phrases and colloquialisms as being every bit as legitimate as formal platform speech was heartfelt, but basically misguided.  Still, their fulminations make for entertaining reading.  In what other capacity would you ever see THE NEW YORK TIMES engage in Red-baiting (by once referring to the offending dictionary as "WEBSTER'S THIRD (Bolshevik) INTERNATIONAL")?  If you are interested in language and/or like to read about intellectuals making even bigger fools of themselves than is normally the case, then THE STORY OF AIN'T will be a pleasant read.

No comments: