Through a hodgepodge cast of linguists, writers, and lexicographers, The Story of Ain't [Harper, $26.99] chronicles how world war, the Great Depression, and other major events shaped Americans' use of English and led the G. and C. Merriam Co.to produce two very different dictionaries: Webster's Second in 1934 and Webster's Third in 1961.
The usual way to describe the difference is to say the Second was prescriptive, telling readers how they ought to use language, and that the Third was descriptive, telling readers how the language is already being used. But this merely scratches the surface. In fact, the two dictionaries were as different as the years they were published.
The Second was prudish, inhibited, and yet full of information. It weighed seventeen pounds and reflected the grand tradition of late nineteenth-century lexicography, when dictionaries doubled as encyclopedias and promised a newly literate nation "efficient training to the best kind of culture." With biographical information on thirteen thousand "noteworthy persons" and geographical information on everywhere from Aarhus to Zumbo, it was the "supreme authority" on everything worth knowing. It preferred high-tone usage and pronunciations. Words of doubtful status it labeled vulgar or slang. Pronunciations were few and prestigious, representing "formal platform speech."
The Third was more narrow, jettisoning all the encyclopedic material in order to remain a single-volume dictionary. It was more honest about the state of actual usage and more comprehensive within its stated boundaries, but it was much less fluent in the prejudices of educated Americans. Its editor Philip Gove openly disavowed "artificial notions of correctness and superiority." A press release flaunted the dictionary's use of lowbrow quotations from Mickey Spillane and Betty Grable. Yet the dictionary was frequently knocked for being too complicated. Gove was a reader of linguistics and his notion of what a dictionary was and how words should be defined were heavily influenced by the linguist's sense that language is difficult to understand and irreducibly complex.
Neither dictionary was immune to controversy. But no single dictionary ever saw a controversy like the nationwide freakout that greeted Webster's Third, which achieved its status as the most controversial dictionary ever by appearing to endorse vulgar English as good English.
Here are 9 of the most controversial words added to Webster's Third: