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Originally published Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 5:04 AM

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‘The Story of Ain’t’: the controversial overhaul of Webster’s international dictionary

David Skinner’s new book, “The Story of Ain’t,” is a spirited account of the furor that resulted when Webster’s dictionary was dragged reluctantly into the 20th century.

Special to The Seattle Times

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`The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published’by David Skinner

Harper, 349 pp., $26.99

Anyone with a stake in the effective writing of words — and that’s pretty much all of us — can only be humbled by the elusiveness of their meaning. We seek comfort in a dictionary’s defining, prescriptive advice while also demanding that a dictionary accurately reflect our language as it’s commonly used, and allow us to stretch words into energized new meanings.

This is the tension writ large between the 1934 second edition of “Webster’s New International Dictionary” and its spirited 1961 successor, “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary,” or “Webster’s Third.” And it is also the theme of Skinner’s engaging, informed account.

Thus, in the midst of the sea changes that unmoored nearly every aspect of post-WWII American life — religion, politics, sex, technology, art, music, film — there was the fusty 3,194-page second edition, all-encompassing but found wanting in keeping up with the explosion of modern words, presenting nonjudgmental definitions, or even including high-functioning words it might find objectionable, such as the f-word.

Into this vacuum walked Philip Babcock Gove, originally hired by Merriam-Webster as an assistant editor in 1946 — he’d extensively studied Samuel Johnson’s dictionary — and promoted to the editorship of “Webster’s Third” in 1951.

Gove’s guiding concept, shared in an essay before the publication of “Webster’s Third”: a dictionary must be a “faithful recorder ... it cannot expect to be any longer appealed to as an authority.”

Some very kooky things happened along the way, though. For one, Gove lowercased nearly every word, except acronyms, God and apparently trademark names, like Spam and Kleenex. Geographical entities such as France and the United States were shuffled off to a separately published gazetteer. Dictionary users must have wondered, What in God’s name was Gove thinking?

They’d be joined in the subsequent firestorm of criticism by The New York Times, which called for a complete redo for the new edition’s lack of guidance on word usage; The New Yorker, which published a blistering review by Dwight Macdonald; cultural critic Jacques Barzun; and newspaper headline writers everywhere, who had a field day with the dictionary’s approval of “ain’t”: “Saying Ain’t Ain’t Wrong” (Chicago Tribune), among many others.

And in Gove’s effort to address the vagaries of meaning are found ridiculously detailed entries, like this partial one for “hotel”: “with shops having both inside and street-side entrances and offering for sale items (as clothes, gifts, candy, theater tickets, travel tickets) ... ”

As engaging and informed as Skinner’s account is, it doesn’t really show how the American public itself responded to this war of words among members of the press, other than to say that “Merriam continued to sell a lot of dictionaries,” with 1963 revenues at $6 million.

Nor, unfortunately, does Skinner say what changes, if any, the dictionary’s publisher made to subsequent editions as a response to the furor over “Webster’s Third.”

There’s no doubt, though, that “Webster’s Third” transformed the role of the dictionary in modern America, even questioning its own authority. Still, against the charge by Life magazine that Abraham Lincoln could not have written his Gettysburg Address from “Webster’s Third,” lexicographer Bergen Evans offered in defense: “Nothing worth writing is written from a dictionary.”

Alan Moores is a longtime copy editor for Booklist magazine, which answers questions of word usage and spelling with the “Merriam-Webster Dictionary.”

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