© 2022 Public Radio Tulsa
800 South Tucker Drive
Tulsa, OK 74104
(918) 631-2577

A listener-supported service of The University of Tulsa
PRT Header Color
classical 88.7 | public radio 89.5
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

"America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published" (Encore presentation.)

Aired on Monday, January 13th.

(Note: This program first aired last year.) On our show today, we speak by phone with David Skinner, an editor and writer whose work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, Slate, The Washington Times, and other publications. He's also the editor of Humanities magazine, which is published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he joins us to discuss his book, "The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published." It's a "true tale fascinating not just to linguists and lexicographers, but to anyone interested in the evolution of our language during a critical period in America's history" (as per the New York Journal of Books). And more precisely, as was noted in a starred weekly in Publishers Weekly: "Skinner, who is on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, offers a highly entertaining and intelligent re-creation of events surrounding the 1961 publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary by G. & C. Merriam. The dictionary...included a press release from Merriam's president Gordon J. Gallan, which said the work contained 'an avalanche of bewildering new verbal concepts.' The new dictionary embraced informal English in 450,000 total entries, including 100,000 new words, including 'clunk' (from Mickey Spillane), 'cool' (from jazz), and snafu (from WWII). Editor Philip Gove's break with tradition, the refusal to distinguish between good language and bad, outraged academics and editorial writers, setting in motion what Skinner calls 'the single greatest language controversy in American history.' A Chicago Tribune headline announced 'Saying Ain't Ain't Wrong.' Life labeled Webster's Third 'a non-word deluge,' and it was vilified as 'literary anarchy.' To probe why it triggered such volcanic eruptions, Skinner shows how Gove sought to construct a modern, linguistically rigorous dictionary and details how Dwight Macdonald and other critics sought to destroy it. The result is a rich and absorbing exploration of the changing standards in American language and culture."

Related Content