Review by Booklist Review
*Starred Review* The editors of the New York Times breathed fire when they saw the word ain't in Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961). However, Skinner brushes aside the Times' outrage to recover the story of how one brave editor, Philip Gove, dared to publish a dictionary documenting how language actually worked in twentieth-century America, not a carefully trimmed guide to linguistic etiquette. Chronicling the thinking that emboldened Gove, Skinner revisits early twentieth-century America to examine the tensions separating the genteel novelist Henry James, who deplored the slovenliness of American speech, from the populist Mark Twain, who relished the lawless energy of that speech. As a work championing Twain's perspective, H. L. Mencken's 1919 The American Language receives particular attention as an overdue recognition of the generative powers that informed the unvarnished rhetoric of Lincoln and the iconoclastic fiction of Theodore Dreiser. Skinner also limns the growing lexical impact of linguistics as an empirical science, not a set of regulatory grammar rules. Schooled in such science, Gove risked the publication of a revolutionary lexicon though Skinner allows readers to hear the howls of protest that the dictionary provoked before it finally won general acceptance. A compelling reminder of the cultural significance of words and word-making.--Christensen, Bryce Copyright 2010 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Humanities editor 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, assembled at a cost of $3.5 million, 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. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn Agency. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Webster's Third New International Dictionary (W3) was published in 1961. Press reaction was harsh, and the public debate on the subject was included in James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt's Dictionaries and That Dictionary (1962). W3's treatment of ain't was particularly scrutinized thanks to misleading material distributed by the publisher's press agents. Criticism focused on W3's lack of "prescriptivism," i.e., that the dictionary should make judgments on what's proper and what's not. Skinner is editor of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Humanities magazine, and this book began as a 2009 article there. That article was a good, concise discussion. In book form, Herbert Morton's The Story of Webster's Third (1994) thoroughly and learnedly covered all this. Skinner's book, on the other hand, flits among topics and spends endless pages on the life story of Dwight Macdonald, the critic who wrote a long, damning account of W3 in The New Yorker-the book is as much about Macdonald as anything else. VERDICT Readers will be better served by the two books named above. This one is unorganized and quite shallow.-Michael O. Eshleman, Kings Mills, OH (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Former Weekly Standard editor and current Humanities magazine editor Skinner debuts with the story of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, whose 1961 publication prompted assorted pundits to declare that the end of civilization was nigh. Imagine a time when a dictionary could animate the media as much as a political sex scandal. It wasn't that long ago. Skinner, who serves on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, knows dictionaries and how they are made and devotes a large portion of his attention to the nouns-and-verbs aspects of lexicography. (How are words discovered and selected? How are definitions written? Where do the examples come from?) The author also profiles the people who made the decisions about the book, including Dr. Philip Gove, editor-in-chief for the project, and his predecessors and successors. The author also sketches the stories of the dictionary's harshest critics, principally Dwight Macdonald, whose biography Skinner distributes throughout. He examines the powerful cultural forces involved, including the rise of structural linguistics and cultural relativism, the effects of TV and movies on vocabulary, and the country's changing demographics. We learn why the F-bomb and others are not in the book, and why Gove changed the style of definitions, why he included so many varying pronunciations, and why he viewed the volume as descriptive rather than prescriptive. This latter function is what ignited critics, many of whom believed the lexicographers had caved and had no interest in maintaining standards. (The author points out that ain't was in many dictionaries, including Webster's Second.) Skinner carefully identifies the critics' errors and the lexicographers' missteps, and he explores the economics and politics of the dictionary business. Perhaps too much Macdonald and not enough logo-geekery, but a well-researched, even loving, look at our language and its landlords.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.