Dear Friends: Please don't hate me because this is so long. I hope that it's readable and informative.
Ours, the American language, is a hospitable language composed of so many influences from outside the United States of America. Hopefully, we welcome with open arms people from other freedom loving counties and their languages. We have been incorporating their influence and their words into our own version of English for hundreds of years. I’ve read more than one time that our language is always evolving but until the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary
by G. & C. Merriam Company we just took the fact for granted without seeing it in black and white, bound and in our schools and libraries. That changed with the publication of only the third edition of the famous Webster’s Dictionary. Webster’s Third,
W3 as it was called, was immediately lambasted by scholars, linguists and specifically The New York Times which stated it should be immediately withdrawn and replaced by Webster’s New International Dictionary,
Second Edition, Unabridged, now referred to as W2. W2 which was published in 1934, during The Depression contained among other words, ain’t*
although in W3 it was the rallying cry for the critics of the newest Webster edition. The word had even been published in other lesser known dictionaries previous to 1961.
The book begins with a biographical sketch (some longer than others) of the ‘who’s who’ in the book, those important players. The Dramatis Personae
(Latin, of course, which I thought odd) is a short bio sketch of the persons referenced in the book and was located at the back of the book with notes and an index. I referred to the Dramatis Personae frequently. (It occurred to me that James Lee Burke might consider doing the same because of the high number of characters in his books.)
The brouhaha arose after the book was published in 1961 with the editor, Dr. Philip Gove considered mostly responsible for the new edition. He (with the support of Gordon Gallan, president of Merriam when W3 was published) along with their already ‘in-house’ scholars, kept all changes prior to publication very secretive in “Black Books” which were never to leave the premises.
It was unfortunate that the PR firm which Merriam hired to announce the new edition had inaccurate information in their first press release. It was soon corrected; the inaccurate information was that the word ‘ain’t’ was seen for the first time in a dictionary in W3. The word was also listed in W2 as a colloquialism but this time colloquialism was dropped from the definition which to linguists, high school English teachers and college English professors (including their respective national organizations) made a big difference. Photo on cover of book which was contributed by Merriam but no one was identified
In W3 one-quarter million words were dropped from the 1934 edition with “all remaining entries …revised” for a total of 450,000 words and 100,000 quotations “from more than 14,000 authors.” Had there not been any words and/or entries dropped, Merriam would have had to print two volumes which was not considered cost effective much less the bulk of two volumes. I can recall the sturdy stand at the inside the door of our high school library. The dictionary was huge and needed a sturdy stand.
As stated, W3 was attacked and extolled by various college professors in history and the humanities, language scholars, editors of literature reviews, TV hosts (TV and TV dinners were both new listings), newspapers and their columnists, grammarians, intellectuals, magazine editors and published authors with all stating their varied positions.
The New York Times stated W3 should be immediately withdrawn and W2 republished. Further, the international newspaper was not going to use W3 as the last word for spelling usage and information (who was the 31 president of the U.S.?) and that they would continue to use W2. The NYTimes considered their highfalutin opinion basically the end of the story. It would single handedly be the catalyst for putting W3 away forever. (Remember strong peronalities and egos were involved here.) Unfortunately, their first story on W3 contained inaccuracies which they later had to publicly correct and/or retract. Not off to a great start, NYT.Take that!
(I was tickled that author David Skinner said that numerous times throughout the book when opposing opinions shot back with a zinger.)
Some newspapers and opponents of W3 said its publication was the end of the English language as we knew it. English, our language, was going to hell in a handbag because of its publication. And well respected newspapers across the nation offered their opinion mostly detractors of the newer edition of Webster’s Dictionary some repeating the inaccuracies stated by other newspapers, without researching the facts themselves.
Well, yes, English, the proper use of the English language in America was changing due in part to a changing culture in America. America was no longer an elitist society when the common, average, middle American was still somewhat illiterate and uneducated.
Without going into all the cultural changes America went through from 1932 to 1961, of course our language would change; W3 was based on our speaking language NOT how we should say things, but how we DO say things. (A study was made using mostly handwritten letters to the U. S. Army with words written by a broad spectrum of Americans about their benefits from the government. The study was used and referred to by Dr. Gove and his core group at Merriam to support decisions made in the Black Book.)
Gove’s small group, who looked at each and every entry of W3, was always quiet working, not speaking to each other within their work area. He strongly encouraged them to look at the words as becoming more pedestrian, looking at the writings of Mickey Spillane, Gypsy R. Lee, Fred Allen, Walter Winchell and Al Capp. They all used standard English. Of Webster’s Second, the 1934 edition, Gove said it “represents a luxury of a bygone age.” We were fully in and embracing the 20th Century.
Think how America, after World War II, how the G.I. Bill allowed returning soldiers the opportunity to graduate with a college degree. College professors didn’t teach the now worldly and older (24, not 18-19 years old) soldiers to speak the “Kings English.” They spoke American English using words normally spoken in normal conversations. Clearly English speaking terms such as “whilst” was considered snobbish and elitist and the language spoken by a more English society where there was a more clear delineation of classes. Here in America, we were more democratic, with “all men created equal” attitude…so, professor, “don’t get uppity with me.” Take that!
The discussion went on for years with Merriam actively responding to criticism. They said such things as “the King’s English was going democratic.” Other supporters praised the foresight and courage of Merriam for the printing of W3. The support, of course, received Gove and Gallan’s blessings. Why American English?
“In 1905, Henry James, after years of living in England, had lectured at Bryn Mawr on “The Question of Our Speech.” That Americans lacked ‘good breeding’ and “American circumstances had imposed on the mother tongue in general…” Mark Twain, no surprise here, took the opposite view of our language and used “hain’t” freely in his writing, (that’s how those guys talked, eh?) and out the window went double negatives…”he never not minded” that rule and American loved and embraced Twain.Old Beatnik, Old StonerWhere, Oh Where, Would We Be Without W3?
Take the word beatnik which comes from the Russian word Sputnik which was launched in 1957. Beatnik, which is defined as “a person, especially a member or follower of the Beat Generation, whose behavior, views, and often style of dress is pointedly unconventional.” Visions of Kerouac dancing in your head? Of course. And we can thank Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle when he coined the word Beatnik in 1958. San Francisco, no surprise there, eh? Harks back to Jack Kerouac, too, who that same year published The Dharma Bums and “helped popularize Zen, as in Zen Buddhism.” Zen which was also a new entry in W3.
I always thought vulgar English was just four letter words in English, those words not usually used in public. Linguists would know, of course, that it’s the English used by the semi-illiterate, the uneducated. I received a great education reading this book learned something new about every page. (No discussion here on “dirty words” in W3, just let me say there are plenty in W3 and a discussion on just that topic would be again, the length of this review.)
The definition of journalistic in W2 embarrassing states “characteristic of journalism…hence of a style characterized by evidence of haste, superficiality of thought, inaccuracies of detail. Colloquialisms and sensationalism, journalese. “ I believe Edward R. Murrow would be (perhaps was) offended by that definition and characterization.
It took me more time than usual to read this average sized book and not because I was busy either. I found myself getting side-lined, looking up words I was not familiar with, looking through bookshelves seeing what dictionaries I had (and I have a lot), and browsing through books on words, going off on all kinds of tangents related to words and dictionaries and the English language in general.
Obviously, based on the dictionaries and books that I have around, I have loved our written word, our spoken word, our language which I now hope to refer to as American English.
As an aside, having family in the Smokey Mountains, I recall reading an article that inhabitants of the Smokies and the Appalachian Mountains spoke more the “Kings English” than those of us who live scattered over America. The article went on to say that was because they were secluded and did not have the outside influences those of us who engaged with others. Makes more sense to me now than it did when I read it years ago.
Glancing through other reviews, I see where some said it was boring, sluggish…well, if you have no curiosity about our language and the written word, pass this by. However, if you’re curious, as I am, about words in general, you would either like this or love it like me.
And lastly, when I began the book, it occurred to me that I wished that I had had a more ‘classy’ maybe, literary education from Harvard, Yale, one of those uppity universities where when students graduate they freely use words which I now have to look up in a dictionary (on-line but mostly on my Kindle). But after reading the book which I so thoroughly enjoyed to the nth degree, I’m happy with my education. It’ mine, it’s a basic, run of the mill, average education in journalism and political science from a basic state university, all American, nothing English, our Mother Land English about it. Take that.
*My own spell check shows this is not a word and offers corrections. Now odd to me after reading the book because ain’t is a word.