Goodreads: The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published
The Story of Ain’t and its provocative subtitle mislead me into believing that it would address the great themes it says were debated upon the publication of Webster’s Third Dictionary. What constitutes “proper” or “standard” English? Who decides? Are certain pronunciations “incorrect”? That is, since the dictionary typically lists New England pronunciations, does that make a New York or a Southern accent “wrong”? Should a list of rules determine how English works, or should its actual usage by actual people? The book raises these questions and more, but fails to address them adequately, not even presenting a cohesive summary of the positions reached by various scholars and writers in the 1960s when a flurry of journalistic activity convinced the American public that the inclusion of certain words in Webster’s Third indicated an official acceptance of not only slang but also terms generally considered offensive or derogatory. I closed the covers of the book and wondered what I just read
Despite what the title suggests, coverage of the great debate does not begin until about two-thirds of the way through the book. Biographies of men who will become players in that debate comprise the bulk of the material. Unfortunately, since many readers lack insight about the future roles of these men, these biographies often seem random. Why does the author spend so much time talking about some man’s political leanings? Who is this other scholarly guy? Will he ever return and, if he does, will he prove important? The lightning coverage of these personalities, which switches focus with every chapter, may simply leave many feeling bewildered.
In retrospect, it also seems that the book spends more time talking about Webster’s second dictionary than it does the third. The comparison between volumes is necessary–a great deal of the criticism heaped upon Webster’s Third stemmed from men who thought the book deviated dangerously from the principles of Webster’s Second. However, though some serious matters are addressed–the dropping of “colloquial” to describe the usage of certain words, for example–I never felt that a solid comparison had been made, or was even intended to have been made. The book constantly takes up interesting topics only to gloss them, then drop them.
Failure to follow through with any particular theme is also evident in the treatment of the intersection of American culture with the dictionaries. A lot of space is taken up by fun lists showing the entry of words like “jive”, “jazz”, “hip”, or even “McCarthyism” into the language. These lists bear the burden of having not only to illustrate the changing of the times but also to suggest what that changing might mean. Critics’ dislike of the new informality Webster’s Third seems to embrace and somehow the question of communism seems vaguely associated by some with the question of whether an informal speech means the demise of America. The full implications of such thoughts are, however, never explicated; readers are left only with the knowledge that the inclusion of words pertaining to communism in the dictionary means that communism was a big deal in the ’60s.
The lack of detail may have resulted in part from confusion about the target audience of the book. I assumed that it was meant to reach a popular audience, the majority of whom had had limited contact with not only the history of dictionary criticism but also with the world of ideas touched upon by the book. However, Skinner consistently references movements like New Criticism or Structural Linguistics, tangentially mentioning that they were changing the field of literature and the way English was understood–and that is it. “New Criticism” is simply used in a sentence as if the readers must all know both what it is and what it meant (and means) to English. I suspect that, unless readers have taken a class in literary criticism, these references in fact mean nothing to them.
The Story of Ain’t could have been a fascinating book, one that used the publication of Webster’s Third to talk about the way we understand and employ language. However, though the ideas were present, the execution failed. I walked away feeling as if the author had given me a glimpse of a Very Important Debate that used Very Impressive Words, then dropped the curtain in my face.