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The Story of Ain’t

October 19, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

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The paperback reissue last month of David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published prompted Language Log’s Mark Liberman to write an enthusiastic post.

Next Tuesday, David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t is coming out in a new paperback edition, with a new epilog. I’m happy to have this occasion to post an enthusiastic recommendation: You should immediately run out (virtually or physically) and buy this book, in any of its editions.

I wondered why I hadn’t remembered an equally enthusiastic recommendation when the book appeared a year ago. In the next paragraph, Mark explained,

I began a similarly enthusiastic recommendation back when the book was originally published, in the fall of 2012. As usual for me, I framed the post around some quotations from the text — but every time I made a selection, I recalled an even better section a bit later, or realized that the full impact of the passage that I’d chosen required some background from an earlier chapter. So my post never got posted.

[snip]

Last summer I taught a course at the LSA Institute in Ann Arbor, and I brought my copy of The Story of Ain’t with me, in the hopes of resolving my dilemma and finally posting a recommendation. One afternoon, my roommate Pieter Muysken happened to pick this book off my desk and sat on the living room couch to skim it.

For the next hour or so, Pieter regaled me with a series of variously commented passages: “Listen to this…”, “Oh, this is funny…”, “This man can write…”, punctuated with bursts of laughter, grunts of appreciation, and dramatic readings of selected sentences, paragraphs, or pages.

My sentiments exactly. Do yourself a favor and buy this book!

I did, downloading it after just a moment’s pause. The reason for my pause—and I must say, this is a continuing annoyance with regard to Kindle editions—was the realization that despite the existence of a new epilog, my only option was to download the original version. I have yet to see a Kindleization updated upon the publication of a paperback with new material.

I started the book that day, but it’s been slow going since. I keep getting distracted by various duties, our never-ending remodel, travel plans, and even another book. I hope to get more focused soon.

Here is part of David Skinner description at the book’s website of its origins.

Webster’s Second was puritanical and uncontroversial, created for the living room and the classroom. Its pronunciations represented “formal platform speech,” and its pages contained almost no dirty words. It labored to stay on the right side of schoolmarms and grammarians.

Webster’s Third was scientific in method and, at the same time, surprisingly current on popular culture. It contained almost all the dirty words and among its quotations were such linguistic authorities as Betty Grable and Mickey Spillane. It had not been designed for either the living room or the classroom. It did not play nice with what Gove called “artifical notions of correctness.” Many people—including a fair number of journalists and literary figures—hated it.

Shortly after Webster’s Third was published, the New York Times called on Merriam to take it back and start over. Dwight Macdonald in the New Yorker compared it to the end of civilization. The Editorial Board of the American Scholar didn’t even bother reading it before deputizing Jacques Barzun to denounce Webster’s Third as “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” Meanwhile, James Parton and the American Heritage Company sought to use the controversy to win a controlling position among Merriam stockholders and take over America’s most venerable dictionary brand.

The Story of Ain’t is about the people who made Webster’s Third and the people who loathed it, and all that was going on in the language and in linguistics in the years leading up to 1961. It is a detective story, but it is also a cultural history with an amazing set of characters. I wrote it in order to understand what led to the controversy and why it remains a singular episode in the history of dictionaries and the history of America culture. And I wrote it because I thought it would be fun to sit back and watch the fireworks of a great intellectual controversy.

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