CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Standing at the reference desk at the Kanawha County Public Library, I awaited the delivery into my hands of Webster's Third New International Dictionary. I did not realize that this monumental work occupied a space near the place where I often find myself reading magazines. That shows how seldom I use a dictionary. I suppose checking spelling and the occasional definition is all that I do these days, and I do it by Internet search!
Dictionaries are powerful resources. They not only contain words and more words, but also seek to inform readers about the history and meaning of words. A dictionary also reflects the prejudices of editors and writers. The Second Edition, the big wordbook of my elementary school years, considered itself to be the arbiter of standard speech. Some have called the language of the Second "platform speech" -- formal in style, and not given to lapses into the more common parts of language.
Not so the Third. Published in the early 1960s under the editorship of Philip Gove, this dictionary reached out into the culture, to approve what the Second might have called "vulgar." In fact, at the center of Webster's Third was the listing of "ain't." The word my parents strongly disapproved of now was at least mentionable by this great dictionary. The old linguistic struggle over shall and will seemed to be resolved by the Third by a more permissive attitude. These words became almost equal in meaning.
Of course, the Third had to admit a whole raft of new words and uses. Sputnik had to make it in. Space race would not have meant a thing in 1934 when the Second hit the shelves. A-bomb made it. But, such a word as CPU would have wait until another edition.
A firestorm hit with the introduction of the Third. Some of the conflicts encountered by Gove are documented in David Skinner's excellent and often humorous 2012 book "The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published."
After publication, major writers solidly condemned this dictionary as symbolic of the decline of English. Only a few scribes praised the Third as a sign of progress. Imagine! Here is a dictionary that listed words previously thought to be risqué or unsuitable. To imply that "ain't" is a worthy contraction of "am not" was considered disgraceful. I have not checked the earlier edition for the word "fanny," but I am pretty sure that the older work would not have reflected seriously on the possibility that this combination of letters referred to the sitting part of one's anatomy.
For some critics, the introduction of a word such as "ain't" in a dialogue marked such an author as Mark Twain as, at best, a country bumpkin.
Skinner's book never stops in its descriptions of the dictionary process. He had access to Gove's papers, and used them well. Some of the papers were actual minutes of meetings of the editorial board. Gove was also a great note taker, and his reflections enrich our understanding of a tedious process, often fraught with anxiety and conflict.
Today's English is a growing thing, and language is not static. Skinner's delightful book makes all that clear. Skinner's work isn't exactly a light read, but it is never boring, and at times it's witty. Some reviewers have said that it is much too long, but Webster's Third is itself a bit too large. In fact, I had the librarian return it to its stand for me. Being somewhat old, and a bit lacking in strength, it was OK for me to ask for help.
Posey, of Charleston, is a retired minister.