Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Third time is the charm, ain't it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dictionaries, short biographies, lexicography

When I was a kid, we'd sometimes poke fun at someone's diction by chanting, "'Ain't' ain't a word 'cause it ain't in the dictionary." Then in my sophomore year, the high school library obtained a copy of the latest "big dictionary," Webster's Third International (to use its short title). Some smart aleck or other looked in it right away, and came running out to say, "Hey, now 'ain't' is in the dictionary!" We all had to run in to see. Sure enough, big as life:

I crept back in later and checked in a few other dictionaries, something I had not considered doing before. Surprise! "Ain't" was in each and every one!! The new dictionary was remarkable only in what it left out: a notification that "ain't" was colloquial, or substandard, or "to be deprecated", and though it did say "disapproved by many", it seemed to approve, noting its use by "many cultivated speakers". As a much-abused nerdy kid, I knew well enough to keep that discovery to myself.

Unbeknownst to all of us kids, the publication of Webster's Third (W3) by the Merriam Co. triggered a controversy that is still not quite over. A debate or dispute is a short-term affair, but a controversy can go on and on, particularly when it touches on matters of tradition. Then, like the centuries-long arguments about the Trinity, the self-worth of touchy intellectuals gets called into question, and the fray outlasts the original participants.

The scope of the W3 controversy is ably canvassed by David Skinner in The Story of Ain't: America, its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. It is no spoiler to mention that anti-W3 material has been published as recently as 2011, a full fifty years after the dictionary was issued. This book is neither pro- nor anti-W3, but is rather a history of the making of the volume, and the story of the principal characters surrounding it.

About the first half of the book's 40 chapters consist of mini-biographies of more than twenty men, and a woman or two. The central figures in the drama are Philip Gove, editor of W3, and Dwight Macdonald, who wrote the most damning (and still quoted) attack upon it. Equally important are William A. Nielson, who edited the predecessor volume (W2) that was issued in 1934, and Charles C. Fries, a pioneer of scientific linguistics. Ordinarily, I am quite put off by biography (I very seldom read one), but Skinner has woven the little biographies together in a most readable way. I still found that it took me a few extra days to read.

Scientific Linguistics remains a difficult issue, partly because no two linguists agree on just what it is. Some years ago a friend of mine was working towards a PhD in linguistics, under a professor who is a structuralist, and claims that as the most scientific approach. C.C. Fries would have damned him for ignoring empirical data about current usage in favor of theories about "generation" of language as promoted by Noam Chomsky. Philip Gove followed Fries's lead (by the way, grammarians are an equally contentious breed, and some would condemn me for that apostrophe-s, claiming the proper possessive is Fries'), basing his instructions to contributors on empiricism.

Where earlier dictionaries, particularly W2, sought to be normative or even prescriptive, Gove in W3 sought instead to embody competent reportage of the English language as American's speak it. This led to a bit of clumsiness because all the illustrative examples are from written, even published, material. But how else can one obtain historical usage? Unlike the Oxford English Dictionary, which traced each word to its earliest use, W3 used history as a springboard to the present, emphasizing current (as of 1960) American English.

In the later chapters that report on the controversy that erupted in 1961, we find that most of those complaining about it compared W3 to an imaginary W2, not having checked to see that most of their bugaboos were right there in W2 also! Yet W3 is definitely not some slightly-altered clone of W2. It is quite different. W2 was not only prescriptive, it also resembled a one-volume encyclopedia, whereas W3 stuck to defining words, not discoursing at length on the item a word "meant". This was by design, and controversy or no, it has influenced dictionary making ever since. I find that the Collins (also called a Webster's) Unabridged on my desk, published in 1979, owes much to Gove's approach, and defines by reporting.

The way we learn language is by imitation. A dictionary doesn't need to prescribe to influence. We who use them do so to learn what is not just normal or normative, but what is ordinary, because only by using a word in its ordinary sense(s) can we be understood, at least in expository prose. In more creative work, it can be salutary to stretch the meaning of a word, but most of what I write is instructional, and being understood is primary. New words and new meanings arise from children and poets; once they are established, the rest of us can use them for the everyday purpose of communication.

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