Philip Gove, editor of Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary, shocked and offended traditional readers and writers with the 1961 edition. David Skinner, author of The Story of Ain’t, discusses the repercussions of Gove’s actions and the way language is still evolving today.
Zola: Philip Gove’s dictionary did not denounce words like ain’t and jive as being “vulgar” or even “colloquial,” only “standard” and “substandard” in most cases; it stuck to the philosophy that spoken English is English. Did subsequent Webster’s editors erase or pull back his influence in later editions?
David Skinner: Yes and no. Some of Gove’s editorial reforms were reversed or never applied to other dictionaries published by Merriam-Webster. For instance, his obstinate refusal to use capital letters—even in the case of the first-person subject noun
‘I’—did not carry over to the Collegiate. But his choice of labels remained influential over later dictionaries. And his overall hostility to classroom notions of correctness has become more common among lexicographers and others since 1961. If you look at Merriam-Webster’s New Unabridged online, you’ll notice many instances of Gove’s influence but all of them refined to meet higher standards for readability and comprehensiveness.
Zola: Gove was guided by linguists, whose scientific studies of American English had them declaring that almost all of “schoolroom grammar” was totally arbitrary and groundless for decades before 1961. Why don’t more people follow this school of thought? Why do we continue to follow, and in many cases fight to keep, these arbitrary rules?
DS: Linguists have, I think, actually become more influential since 1961. But, yes, many of their ideas are ignored by schoolteachers, editors, and others who shape language in classrooms and in print. There are a lot of reasons for this. The main one is that it takes much more than a good counterargument to unseat a prevailing orthodoxy. Also, whenever instruction is the aim, teachers are going to look to familiar, hard-and-fast rules, however imperfect, for helping students to muddle through.
But I would not say that all the rules are arbitrary. It may not seem rationally defensible, for instance, that standard English does not allow for the double negative, but how we ought to speak and write English is, profoundly, a matter of custom, not reason. Custom does have its reasons but many of them are irrational or, better yet, circumstantial.
Zola: David Foster Wallace attacked Webster’s Third rather viciously in a 2001 essay. You point out that his essay makes it plain that he never even read Webster’s Third. Why are some people so easily infuriated by Webster’s Third? When it originally came out were writers and editors more offended than most?
DS: I am not certain that he never read it, but it seems clear that he failed to consult it when he wrote his showboating essay. Wallace bragged about his inside knowledge of dictionaries. He made himself out to be so smart and so wonderfully nerdy that, of course, he had read and knew the contents of these dictionaries and especially their introductions, where he promised their not-so-secret agendas were laid out. But as he quoted from “Gove’s now-classic introduction,” (Wallace’s words) he was actually quoting from another source entirely and he wasn’t really quoting Gove at all. Also Wallace repeated certain untruths that had made the rounds in 1961 but had long stood corrected. By looking at the actual dictionary he would have known these reports to have been at best misleading and at worst false.
People are easily offended by Webster’s Third because it has an incredible way of disappointing the expectations of readers. From its no-frills design to its small font size, bizarrely worded definitions, and pronounced agnosticism on what constitutes good standard English, it is perfectly calibrated to annoy old-fashioned language snobs, a group that includes many professional writers and editors.
Zola: He was not autonomous—even his request to be made a V.P. of Merriam was turned down. He was not famous academically. How did Gove achieve such control over Webster’s Third?
DS: The company was undergoing a generational changing of the guard, and the young guys—Gove included—preferred a division of labor that let the lexicographers be lexicographers and the marketers be marketers. Which is how they ended up with a press release that, amazingly, made Webster’s Third sound even more radical than it was and started the whole controversy.
Zola: How hard was it to write a book that is largely about grammar? What rules did you stick to?
DS: I wanted the writing to reflect some of the shifts in style and usage—dating from the 1920s to the 1960s—that I was describing in the book. So, an early chapter describing a pair of commencement addresses in 1917 had a fairly stiff writing style and impeccable classroom grammar. Later chapters used devices like direct address, sentence fragments, and colloquialisms. Sometimes (for fun, to antagonize, or to draw attention), I deliberately took the less popular side of a usage dispute. For example, I used the plural “were” with “none” (contrary to some rules) because it happens to be a genuine part of my speech. In his review, Jonathan Yardley complained about this very usage, seemingly unaware that it could have been an informed choice on my part.
Zola: Sexting, man cave, and f-bomb were all added to Webster’s dictionary in 2012. How do you feel about the influence of pop culture on our vocabulary? Are there any words you’re happy to see added to the dictionary? Any you wish you could remove?
DS: I am astonished at the influence of popular culture on our speech. Not just youth culture, but the whole common culture. And by the shared airwaves on which the great mass of our words and thoughts meet and make it possible for millions to be simultaneously circulating the same witticism and then wear it out in no time.
There are so many words I am happy to see entered in the dictionary; with the advent of serious online lexicography we may end up seeing fewer words removed from dictionaries. I don’t root for any particular terms to be extinguished from the language, but there are some words and phrases that always cause me to shudder. Self-actualization, journaling, rectal thermometer are a few that come to mind.
DS: My favorite local indie bookstore is Hooray for Books! in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. Most of their books are for children, but as the father of three I am there a lot. Ellen and the staff are discriminating and enthusiastic. They seems to like kids almost as much as they like books. Also, they have a small but very good section of new books for adults.
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This article originally appeared on Zola Books.