October 2012

An offensive four-letter word

By David Skinner
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When Merriam-Webster announced the new words included in its 2012 Collegiate Dictionary—entries that included “sexting” and “energy drink”—the news was greeted quietly, perhaps because most of us understand how language evolves. Slang makes its way to grandparents; jargon becomes commonplace. Or maybe we’ve exhausted our anger.

Tolerance was in short supply 51 years ago when Webster’s Third New International Dictionary caused the intellectual, journalistic and academic worlds to go nuts over one little word—and a change in the dictionary’s philosophy. David Skinner traces the evolution of this language battle in The Story of Ain’t, a fascinating, highly entertaining cultural history that will enchant an audience beyond word nerds.

Webster’s Third hit shelves in 1961, 27 years after the release of Webster’s Second. In the intervening years, World War II, pop culture and other changes had broadened the language. Plus, many researchers had concluded that defining the “right way” to speak English was, at best, an elusive concept.

Editor Philip Gove decided that Webster’s, the leading dictionary of the day, would fit these less formal times. He updated the literary references, shortened the definitions and steered the book away from its encyclopedic past. Even the pronunciation key was dumped. The response to this new approach was met with an anger that rose to pitchfork-carrying levels when the press release for the new dictionary focused on the premiere of “ain’t.” The sloppily prepared release portrayed the word as a staple of educational speakers, neglecting to mention that “a substandard label was attached” to the word in the Webster’s Third entry.

Despite the title, the scandal over “ain’t” is not the book’s best part. It’s the way in which Skinner nimbly, concisely—and without academic dryness—traces the everyday changes that shaped what came out of Americans’ mouths and into our dictionaries. Ain’t that something?

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The Story of Ain’t

The Story of Ain’t

By David Skinner
ISBN 9780062027467

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