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Ain’t That the Truth

Webster's Third: The Most Controversial Dictionary in the English Language

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, July/August 2009 | Volume 30, Number 4

In 1961 a new edition of an old and esteemed dictionary was released. The publisher courted publicity, noting the great expense ($3.5 million) and amount of work (757 editor years) that went into its making. But the book was ill-received. It was judged “subversive” and denounced in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Life, and dozens of other newspapers, magazines, and professional journals. Not every publication condemned the volume, but the various exceptions did little to change the widespread impression of a well-known reference work being cast out from the better precincts of American culture.

The dictionary was called “permissive” and details of its perfidy were aired, mocked, and distorted until the publisher was put on notice that it might be bought out to prevent further circulation of this insidious thirteen-and-a-half–pound, four-inch–thick doorstop of a book. Webster’s Third New International (Unabridged) wasn’t just any dictionary, of course, but the most up-to-date and complete offering from America’s oldest and most respected name in lexicography. (So respected, in fact, that for more than a hundred years other publishers have adopted the Webster’s name as their own. Webster’s Third, published by G. & C. Merriam & Co., today called Merriam-Webster, is the most direct descendant, however, of Noah Webster’s pioneering American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828.)

The dictionary’s previous edition, Webster’s New International Second Edition(Unabridged), was the great American dictionary with 600,000 entries and numerous competitors but no rivals. With a six-inch-wide binding, it weighed four pounds more than Webster’s Third and possessed an almost unanswerable air of authority. If you wanted to know how to pronounce chaise longue, it told you, shāz long, end of discussion. It did not stoop to correct or even mention the vulgarization that sounds like “Che’s lounge.” When to use less and when to use fewer? It indicated what strict usage prescribed. It defined celebrant as “one who celebrates a public religious rite; esp. the officiating priest,” not just any old party guest.

The third edition took a more empirical approach, listing variations in pronunciation and spelling until the reader looking for the one correct answer became the recipient of numerous competing answers: shāz long and Che’s lounge (with lounge labeled a folk etymology). Shades of meaning were differentiated with scads of quotations from the heights of literature and the lows of yesterday’s news section. The new unabridged dictionary was more rigorous but harder to use. And all this made some people quite irate, which Webster’s Third defines as “feeling and showing a high degree of anger : WRATHFUL, INCENSED.”

At first glance, the controversy over Webster’s Third seems to symbolize a lurch in American culture from a late fifties’ respect for standards to a sixties’ rebellion against establishment values. The ensuing debate over the dictionary’s methodology did owe much to the anxiety of midcentury intellectuals about the rise of a national popular culture, as attested to by the involvement of Dwight Macdonald, who became the definitive critic of Webster’s Third. But the dictionary-bashing that began in 1961 has continued well beyond America’s shift from square to hip. In 2001, Harper’s magazine published a cover story by David Foster Wallace that contained a fresh assault on Webster’s Third and its editor, Philip Gove. Like many earlier critiques, it showed little understanding of the thinking that went into Webster’s Third. It was unique, however, in its brazen misrepresentation of the book itself.

“I am not a linguist and have no claim to being a lexicographer but have done considerable research on 17th and 18th century dictionaries,” wrote Philip Gove in a job inquiry to the G. & C. Merriam Company in 1946. Gove was a lieutenant commander in the Navy on leave from a teaching position at New York University and, with the end of the war, about to be discharged. A literature PhD who had published articles on Samuel Johnson’s pioneering dictionary, he soon became an assistant editor at Merriam. Five years later, after a long search for a prominent editor to oversee the editing and production of Webster’s Third (W3), the company promoted the painstaking Gove, then in his late forties, to the position.

Herbert C. Morton, an economist, editor, and NEH research fellow, studied Gove’s personal papers and company files at Merriam-Webster to reconstruct the making of W3 in his 1994 book The Story of Webster’s Third. As Morton showed, Gove’s first managerial decisions concerned how to make room for a vast number of new words, many of a technical nature, entering the lexicon leading up to and as a result of World War II. The number of new words was over 100,000 and included astronaut, beatnik, drip-dry, mccarthyism, radiocarbon, schlemiel, solar house, and zip gun.

All the material from the Webster’s Second (W2) could not be reprinted without making W3 a two-volume work, and much of the second edition’s material cried out for revision, such as the supplement “Names of Noteworthy Persons,” which dated to the 1860s. W3, like W2, would be called unabridged, but words not used since 1755 were deleted (W2 had used 1500 as a cutoff date). In all, 250,000 entries were retired to free up space for new material.

Gove, in Morton’s telling, comes off as an impatient and technocratic editor. He did not shrink from drawing hard lines. A dictionary should give primacy to generic terms, he asserted, not proper names, not geographical appendixes, not biographical information, not famous sayings, nor names from the Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare. This way of cutting encyclopedic material and proper nouns is also the approach of the Oxford English Dictionary, but it was completely novel to American dictionaries, which tended to be one-stop, all-purpose reference works, as W2 had been. Gove’s decision quickly cleared a lot of dead wood, but deprived users of helpful material and resulted in some general peculiarity.

Charles Dickens, for example, no longer warranted an entry but dickensian (with a lowercase d) did. Words almost always capitalized in print were shown in lower case but followed by the notation usu. cap (usually capitalized)—a policy Morton wrote was “universally deplored.”

An entry’s main function, by Gove’s lights, was to report the existence of a word and define its meanings according to common usage. As the nineteenth-century philologist Richard Chenevix Trench said in 1860, the “true idea of what a Dictionary is . . . is an inventory of the language” including “all the words, whether good or bad.” This description, of course, clearly departs from the popular understanding of a dictionary as a book that tells you how to spell words, even proper names if they happen to be well known, and write them down correctly.

But how a word should appear in writing was not uppermost in the minds responsible for W3. The only actual word given a capital letter in the first printing was God. Others given a capital letter in later printings were copyrighted names such as Kleenex, which appeared as kleenex in the first printing (the reason it was in the dictionary, of course, was that it had changed in usage from denoting a brand of tissue to being a synonym for tissue), but was thereafter capitalized under threat of lawsuit.

Another innovation Gove introduced was in the style of definition-writing. “He insisted,” explained Morton “that essential information be logically organized in a single coherent and clearly expressed phrase.” In some cases, this led to a more direct expression of a word’s meaning, but it also led to infelicities. The prose was made even more curious by Gove’s hostility to commas, which he banned from definition-writing except to separate items in a series. He even claimed to have saved the equivalent of eighty pages of text by reducing comma use.

The circuitous entry for door, quoted in a caustic Washington Post article, became well known: “a movable piece of a firm material or a structure supported usu. along one side and swinging on pivots or hinges, sliding along a groove, rolling up and down, revolving as one of four leaves, or folding like an accordion by means of which an opening may be closed or kept open . . .” and so on.

This definition, said Gove, was for someone who had never seen a door. It is difficult to describe something as commonplace as a door, but Gove’s defense undercut another important argument, that an unabridged dictionary is a sophisticated intellectual tool engineered to provide uncommon knowledge. While it was sometimes unclear whether W3 was written for lexicographers or for people who didn’t know what a door was, it was certainly a quirky dictionary.

Its coverage of color terms seems hokey and pseudoscientific in retrospect: The entries were most up-to-date in 1961, redefined and illustrated with a glossy glued-in page with an elaborate modeling diagram, but hard to comprehend. Definitions for every number between one and one hundred were included, as Dwight Macdonald uncharitably noted, but failed to pass the laugh test: forty-eight is defined as “being one more than 47 in number” and so on. One sympathetic lexicographer, after using the dictionary routinely for years, complained that in listing spelling variants (momento for memento, for instance) the editors came “close to denying the possibility of error in spelling.”

W3 infamously included an almost full set of entries for curse words (excluded from W2), opening Merriam to the charge of permissiveness, with the single exception of the F-word, opening the publisher to the charge of prudery. Some quirks offended, such as the fourth definition of the noun jew as “a person believed to drive a hard bargain,” which is not labeled as even potentially offensive, unlike the definition of the verb form, “to cheat by sharp business practice,” which is labeled with a relativist spin, “usu. taken to be offensive.” And yet, W3 marked a big improvement in the treatment of sensitive ethnic, religious, and professional terms over W2, which, for example, had treated the N-word, in part, as merely a colloquialism.

Merriam’s greatest resource was in its bulging files of quotations or citations. In 1934, the publisher held 1,665,000 citations; by 1961, it claimed over ten million. A word might enter the files long before it was defined and printed. In January 1917, Morton notes, a slip was filed for the term atomic bomb, defined as “chem. explosion of an atom” and marked “fanciful.” In 1961, a written definition for a-bomb was printed in W3. Such work required a large staff of readers and definers, but a remarkable amount of work was handled by over two hundred outside consultants. One chemist mentioned by Morton needed over six years to review and comment on his assignment of 12,790 terms, which included an estimated quarter-million slips of paper.

Citations showed a word and sense in action, and those in W3 became notorious for their democratic flavor. Although the Bible and Shakespeare remained the most oft-quoted text and author, numerous contemporary language-users were cited, from literary critic Edmund Wilson to television host Art Linkletter and best-selling author and madam Polly Adler (but she, only once). In specialized areas, though, the dictionary earned exuberant praise. Its coverage and handling of sports terms was celebrated, and affectionately gibed by sports columnist Charles McCabe who wanted to know why slud (as in “he slud into third”) wasn’t in the dictionary. The use of International Scientific Vocabulary in the etymologies was also an inside-baseball triumph, but it drew praise from fellow lexicographers if little notice from anyone else.

What did attract notice was Gove’s policy on labeling. “When in doubt dictionary editors typically attached a label to a questionable word,” wrote Morton, explaining that Gove broke with tradition but tried to ensure that citations would provide context and thus speak to a word’s appropriateness—a decision Gove did not explain or defend in the dictionary’s introductory essay. W2 had made expansive use of a range of labels including correct and incorrect, proper and improper, erroneous, humorous, jocular, ludicrous, gallicism, and poetic. A strong argument, one imagines, could have been made to rationalize and eliminate overlapping terms (incorrect and erroneous? humorous and jocular?), but Gove reduced possible labels to five: slang, nonstandard, substandard, obsolete, and archaic. And these disapproving terms Gove used sparingly, far too sparingly for his critics. Another label he dropped was colloquial (meaning conversational), which was misunderstood by readers as meaning either local or plain old wrong.

Labeling a word plain old wrong did not fit the Gove approach. As he wrote in a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “The basic responsibility of a dictionary is to record language, not set its style.” He did believe it was possible to mishandle a word and noted that the result could be significant. “The social and professional consequences of using a wrong word in wrong circumstances remain as serious as ever.” So he was not quite the relativist described in his press clippings, but nor was he secretly a schoolmarm. A former composition teacher, Gove, like Noah Webster before him, viewed the textbook fixation with grammar and many of its rules with great suspicion.

In a 1961 article he penned for Word Study, a marketing newsletter that Merriam circulated to educators, Gove discussed how the young science of linguistics was altering the teaching of grammar. Linguistics, he pointed out, had so far exercised little influence on lexicography except in the area of pronunciation, where the effect was “profound and exciting.” The findings of linguistics allowed lexicographers to move beyond their earlier search for an elusive “formal platform speech” as a model for standard pronunciation, to acknowledge how words were actually spoken and to record legitimate variations.

The major point of Gove’s article was to note that many precepts of linguistics, some of which had long been commonplace in lexicography, increasingly underlay the teaching of grammar. The National Council of Teachers of English had even endorsed five of them, and Gove quoted the list, which originally came from the 1952 volume English Language Arts:

1—Language changes constantly.
2—Change is normal.
3—Spoken language is the language.
4—Correctness rests upon usage.
5—All usage is relative.

These precepts were not new, he added, “but they still come up against the attitude of several generations of American educators who have labored devotedly to teach that there is only one standard which is correct.”

While these precepts may seem quite radical, they are in reality a defense of convention. All usage is relative (5), Gove made plain elsewhere, but only to the standards of a relevant linguistic community. Formal platform speech with precise use of who and whom will not get you far in prison; prison slang meanwhile will not get you far up the corporate ladder. That change is constant and normal (1 and 2) is not to say that at any moment night can mean day and day can mean chocolate, but that, among other phenomena, some words fade from usage while others accrete new meanings. Even the head-scratching idea that “spoken language is the language” is an oblique way of saying speech is the primary form of language, writing (historically, developmentally, and quantitatively), secondary.

The most infamous entry in Webster’s Third, by far, was for ain’t. The word was featured in publicity material issued by Merriam’s own public relations firm but misquoted to make its slightly modified treatment in W3 wrongly suggest a licentious break with the dictionary’s more formal past. Numerous ain’t-happy headlines and scores of one-liners—“Ain’t Nothing Wrong with Use of ‘Ain’t,’” “Say it Ain’t So”—resulted; the New Yorker ran a cartoon showing a receptionist at Merriam telling a visitor that “Dr. Gove ain’t in.”

The dictionary (as opposed to the press release) said in its first definition that ain’t was a contraction for are not, is not, and am not and gave as a usage note, “though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain’t I.” This way of putting things was hardly permissive. And it happened to mirror the preference of the august rhetorician H. W. Fowler but, like the correction Merriam belatedly issued, this amusing fact did little to neutralize the story at large that, as a New York Times editor put it, America’s great dictionary “has methodically removed all guideposts to usage.”

Right or wrong, Gove never won a round on ain’t. Later pressed to supply whatever evidence he had for the exact wording of the entry, which he himself had written, Gove was reduced to saying, “There is no large file of evidence being withheld.” It is worth noting, however, that the more conservative American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, supports W3’s entry in a usage note: “Despite all the attempts to ban it, ain’t continues to enjoy extensive use in speech. Even educated and upper-class speakers see no substitute in folksy expressions such as Say it ain’t so and You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Several reports of hilarious usages W3 was said to have authorized proved totally unfounded. The jocular and semiliterate irregardless was said to have been given the okay for regular use, though the entry in W3 was labeled disapprovingly nonstandard and it was not new to Webster’s (the word had appeared in W2, labeled erroneous and humorous). Life magazine editorialized against the new dictionary’s handling of irregardless, finalize, concretize, and the use of enormity as a “synonym for enormousness.” It also singled out the ending –wise for condemnation (as in the famous line from The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon, “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”).

Assuring readers it was not opposed to progress, Life’s editorial closed by saying it would continue relying on the guidance of W2 for “matters of style, good English, winning at Scrabble and suchwise.” Little did the editors understand that they had misrepresented W3’s handling of irregardless and enormity (the definitions for enormity and enormousness actually drew attention to their different meanings). As for finalize, concretize, and the ending –wise, these were all established enough to have appeared without warning labels in W2, the very dictionary Life’s editors claimed to know and trust so well.

Reading the press coverage—much of it collected in Dictionaries and THAT Dictionary, coedited by one of W3’s chief defenders, James Sledd—it is hard to avoid the conclusion that much of the hubbub was attributable to journalistic culture. Professional writers, though their copy may throb with the neon glow of fashionable catchphrases, love to imagine themselves staunch traditionalists on words and punctuation. But the fight was also joined by a number of literary intellectuals.

In the spring of 1962, Wilson Follett, whose Modern American Usage was published posthumously a few years later, wrote in the Atlantic that W3’s editors were “saboteurs” and the book’s publication was “a very great calamity.” But most faults he identified were so minute they could not live up to their billing: the well-founded if awkward phrase center around (Follett would only brook center on or center in); the much-scorned but much-recorded use of like as a conjunction (in place of as or as if); trifles like the facts that cornball was labeled slang while corny was not and that the third definition of cohort acknowledged its use in the singular as a synonym for companion. Follett was particularly exercised by W3’s handling of due, “to extenuate such abominations as ‘the event was canceled due to inclement weather.’”

A more lethal assault was carried out in the New Yorker by Dwight Macdonald whom James Sledd called “the most eloquently mistaken” of the dictionary’s critics. Macdonald scored points off W3’s underexplained and potentially arbitrary distinctions between slang and not slang, the dropping of colloquial and other labels, and the dropping of encyclopedic material. In a list of examples where he preferred W2’s handling of a word to W3’s, he wrote “Enthuse is labeled colloq. in 2 but not 3. It still sounds gadawf. if not colloq. to me.”

W2 was also tougher, he thought, on hard-to-distinguish pairs such as nauseous and nauseated, deprecate and depreciate, and disinterested and uninterested. For each of these words, however, W3 gave fine, informative accounts that another sensible reader might very well prefer to the entries in W2. And Macdonald made errors, as Sledd pointed out, like claiming that W3 defined masses as the plural of mass, mistake Macdonald later admitted.

A true language snob, as befitting a professional polemicist, Macdonald picked on the seemingly inane details of W3 (e.g., the thirty-four pages listing words starting with un-) as if he had consulted the dictionary for inspiration and found monotony. In this, he, like many others in this scrum, mistook a dictionary’s traditional role as that of a gilt-edged repository of verbal treasures. Morton effectively quotes Noah Webster on this point: “The business of the lexicographer is to collect, arrange, and define, as far as possible, all the words that belong to a language, and leave the author to select from them at his pleasure and according to his own taste and judgment.”

Macdonald attributed W3’s radical departure from what he called “the old school” to the sinister influence of structural linguistics. As evidence, he quoted from, without tracing the exact source, Gove’s article on the teaching of language arts, “Linguistic Advances and Lexicography.” Wrote Macdonald, “Dr. Gove and the other makers of 3 are sympathetic to the school of language study that has become dominant since 1934. It is sometimes called Structural Linguistics.” He then introduced the five precepts mentioned earlier by making it sound as if Gove had written them, “Dr. Gove gives its basic concepts as . . .”

Gove’s interest in linguistics as a dictionary editor was, of course, limited to pronunciation. And
though Macdonald was probably not confused about the provenance of the five items, it is worth keeping in mind that Gove had not written them but only cited them, and not in W3 but in an article he’d written for Merriam’s trade newsletter. Gove’s sympathetic historian Morton did not take lightly Macdonald’s distortion that W3 was a product of the “revolution” (Macdonald’s word) in linguistics. Wrote Morton, “Looking at Gove’s article today, one wonders how its meaning could have been so utterly misunderstood and why the misinterpretation gained credence.”

Almost forty years later, this misinterpretation was passed on to a new generation when David Foster Wallace revisited the W3 controversy. Infinite Jest, Wallace’s 1996 novel, considered by many a seminal work for his generation, showed a conspicuous interest in language and lexicography, as when a character claims to have memorized long stretches of the dictionary and references the OED and different editions of Webster’s. But Wallace had not really strutted his stuff as a language maven until his twenty-page essay called “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” appeared in the April 2001 issue of Harper’s.

Calling himself a “SNOOT” (a neologism he defined as “somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it”), Wallace presented himself as a dyed-in-the-wool language purist and dictionary aficionado. He was more than passing familiar, he claimed, with the “seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography.” To find this underbelly, he wrote, one has to read introductory essays in dictionaries, such as “Webster’s Third’s ‘Linguistic Advances and Lexicography.’”

But Gove’s article, “Linguistic Advances and Lexicography,” was not the introduction to Webster’s Third; in fact, it wasn’t in Webster’s Third at all, ever. And the preface Gove wrote for W3, dated June 1, 1961, is not much of a “salvo” in the usage war, as Wallace argued, but a fairly tame document, as one would expect, which mostly touts prominent features of the dictionary itself.

Had Wallace or one of his editors only glanced at the preface, there could have been no mistaking its actual contents or rather benign character. Yet Wallace unwittingly made Gove’s newsletter article the centerpiece of a somewhat lengthy attack on Webster’s Third and Gove’s editing of it. And he compounded the initial error by referring to Gove’s article, a few paragraphs on, as “Gove’s now-classic introduction to Webster’s Third.”

It seems fair to wonder if Wallace, for all his bluster, had much experience using W3. In the same essay, he credited Philip Gove with coining the terms descriptivist and prescriptivist to represent the warring sides over usage, but he could have looked up the terms to find they were already so defined in W3, in which case they certainly predated Gove’s use of them following the dictionary’s publication. He also repeats the old Life magazine mistake concerning irregardless and committed yet another concerning the labeling of the dialectical variant heighth.

A recurring lament of Morton’s history is that W3’s critics were able to make their case to a much larger audience than its defenders were able to reach. Dwight Macdonald’s essay ran in the New Yorker, with a circulation just under 450,000, and was reprinted in his 1962 collection Against the American Grain (itself reprinted in 1983). James Sledd’s devastating refutation, accounting Macdonald’s errors of fact and unfounded assertions about the history of dictionaries, was printed in Symposium on Language and Culture, the Proceedings of the 1962 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society—not exactly Reader’s Digest. Morton’s own history garnered two reviews in major newspapers, both friendly, while almost no one noticed the sweeping errors of fact in David Foster Wallace’s essay, even as it was reprinted without correction in his widely hailed collection, Consider the Lobster, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2005 and available since 2007 in paperback.

Webster’s Third was an important dictionary and a major addition to the American shelf of reference works, but it was not without fault. Even James Sledd complained about W3’s inadequate labels and its odd style of definition-writing. Morton himself faults Gove for failing to make clear his rationales for reducing the use of labels and for failing to explain that he expected citations to give readers a heightened sense of a word’s relative formality and contextual appropriateness. But it was unjust that Webster’s Third came to be known as the “permissive” dictionary and the ugly stepchild of linguistics. The evidence presented for the first proved faulty in numerous particulars, while the public outcry betrayed more than a little ignorance and hysteria. And the primary evidence for the second charge was Dwight Macdonald’s careless misreading of a newsletter.

In 1964, in the wake of the W3 controversy, the American Heritage Company made a failed attempt to buy out G. & C. Merriam before deciding to publish its own rival product, the American Heritage Dictionary. Merriam was bought out all the same by Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., which continues to own the rights and operations of the Merriam-Webster family of dictionaries.

In 2008 work began on Webster’s Fourth New International Dictionary (Unabridged), says Merriam-Webster’s editor at large Peter Sokolowski, but the project so far involves only a portion of the staff. If you look at Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Sokolowski adds, you can see that over the years the editors have slowly addressed a number of quirks that set Webster’s Third apart. Still, arriving more than fifty years since the last unabridged, Webster’s Fourth will necessarily contain a great amount of new material and probably much to argue about.

David Skinner is editor of Humanities.

In 1989, Herbert C. Morton received NEH funding to work on The Story of Webster’s Third: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics, which was published in 1994. Over the years, NEH has funded numerous dictionary endeavors for languages ancient and modern. Among them are projects on Alaskan Native languages, Albanian, American regional English, Aramaic, Assyrian, Basque, Chinese, Chol, Dinka, Geez, Hittite, Hopi, Lahu, Middle English, Modern Greek, Navaho, Old High German, Old Spanish, Sumerian, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Yiddish. This year is the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson, possibly the greatest lexicographer in the English language. NEH has supported work on the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson.