Dictionaries–ain't they great!

October 16, 2012

Do you like words? Do you like dictionaries? I do. So I found this interview last Sunday on NPR’s  “Weekend Edition” particularly fascinating. Rachel Martin spoke with author David Skinner about his new book, The Story of Ain’t. Skinner takes us back to the release of what is commonly known as “Webster’s Third” in 1961. It was a revolutionary time for the nation’s youth and apparently for lexicographers at G & C Merriam as well. With its newfangled take on language, adding thousands of new words, and offering updated usage suggestions, it generated a storm of controversy. The inclusion of the word “ain’t” and how it was treated in the dictionary was a clear example of its new stance on usage and correctness. This antagonized those prescriptors of language and the notion of a fixed version of English as taught in most classrooms of the day. The dictionary led the vanguard in the descriptor camp of lexicography, i.e., providing a language guide that didn’t teach or preach, but one that described how language is really being used and how it changes.

The 1961 edition is long out of print, not to be found in most library collections today (though I’d bet some folks might still find one on their own shelves), and today language changes so fast and furiously that it is getting harder and harder to hold a position that correctness never evolves. But, there will always be “word wars” about what constitutes good English and controversial usages, and I for one, love to watch it all play out.

Barbara L.

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