David Skinner's The Story of Ain't tells the story of Webster's Third, the most controversial dictionary ever assembled. Here, Skinner tells us the story of the dictionary that was referred to as "literary anarchy."
When Noah Webster completed the first major American dictionary in 1828, he hoped it would unite the young republic culturally and politically. With the spread of basic literacy in the nineteenth century, commercial dictionaries further promised to educate the ignorant and cultivate the uncultured. G. and C. Merriam Co., which purchased the unsold sheets of Noah Webster’s 1841 American Dictionary of the English Language after his death, established its brand as the “supreme authority” on everything worth knowing.
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In 1934, Webster’s Second was published, capping many decades of scholarly improvement but also setting a high watermark for all that could be included in a dictionary. Webster’s Second was a “universal” dictionary. It was like some old Victorian uncle who seems to know everything: the rules for bridge, all the names in the Bible and Shakespeare, major historical events, every last one of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and whether it’s okay to say “It’s me” instead of “It is I.” Pronunciation advice was modeled on “formal platform speech.”
Webster’s Second was not afraid of passing judgment: Apache were “nomads, of warlike disposition and relatively low culture.” Aleut were “peacable” but only “semi-civilized.” And it was rather puritanical. Many sexual terms were suppressed, and those that made it in were deprived of their naughty side. Horny was defined only as having something to do with actual horns.
Very quickly this model came to seem pathetically out of date. The example sentence for limp was antique in its reference to “a limp cravat.” The dictionary labeled ballyhoo slang even as our elegant president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, used it in one of his fireside chats, telling Depression-era Americans that “we cannot ballyhoo ourselves back to prosperity.” The science of linguistics had shown that the usual rules for shall and will were often wrong and, in general, misleading, but Webster’s Second hewed to the old line on the future tense. And the dictionary’s more encyclopedic material proved to be highly selective: forgettable royalty had been remembered but Babe Ruth and Louis Armstrong had been left out. Its formal pronunciations became fodder for jokers who said that when Webster’s gives two pronunciations the first is Boston and the second is New England.
Meanwhile Americans were beginning to embrace “our own vulgar heritage,” as Edmund Wilson once put it. In the twenties and thirties, H.L. Mencken published a bestselling study called The American Language. Writers from William Faulkner to Zora Neale Hurston to John Steinbeck made dialectal American speech into the stuff of literature. American slang fueled the language of journalism and radio, while radio and microphones helped make the formal pronunciation standards of open-air podium speech obsolete. Looser colloquial standards were replacing formal standards in American prose.