Thursday, December 13, 2012

David Skinner's "The Story of Ain’t"

David Skinner the editor of Humanities, and before that he was an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New Atlantis, Boston magazine, the Washington Times, American Spectator, Slate, Salon, Education Next, The Public Interest, and several other publications. His writing about dictionaries has been featured on Slate and National Public Radio.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his recent book, The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, and reported the following:
From page 99 of The Story of Ain't:
Next Macdonald was taking it to The Nation, for skipping a Trotsky Commission meeting; for playing nice with New Deal Democrats; and for avoiding the question of whether Stalinism was building socialism or destroying it. Shrewdly, Macdonald realized the left’s vulnerability on the matter of Stalin’s brutality, but with extravagant outspokenness he used his own personal experience, his own life story, as warm-up for his attacks.
The Story of Ain’t is the history of a comic, over-the-top, one-of-a-kind public controversy that erupted in 1961 when G. and C. Merriam Co. unveiled its new unabridged dictionary, Webster’s Third, which, according to the press release, described ain’t as “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by cultivated speakers.”

Scores of mocking headlines resulted. Said one newspaper in reply: “Cultivated, our foot.”

Next, the New York Times was calling on Merriam to scrap the new dictionary and start over. In the Atlantic, Wilson Follett called Webster’s Third “a very great calamity” and accused its editors of trying to sabotage the language. In the American Scholar, Jacques Barzun called Webster’s Third “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.”

The Story of Ain’t is also about our attachment to the language and how upset we get when people use it in ways we do not approve of. (Some people, for instance, get quite annoyed when a sentence ends with a preposition.) And it is about American history leading up to the controversy, especially how the language was churning in response to the Great Depression, World War Two, the G.I. Bill, popular culture, and the Cold War.

Why, then, on page 99 was I discussing a minor internecine feud between the New York intellectual Dwight Macdonald and The Nation magazine? One reason is that it partly illuminates the parade of changing cultural and intellectual fashions between that 1920s and the 1960s. Macdonald is, to me, symbolic of the then-developing adversarial culture of American intellectuals.

But the main reason is that Macdonald becomes the major critic of Webster’s Third, and here in these other spats we can glimpse his development as a putdown artist: the upper cut of his sarcasm, the left jab of his questioning, the knockout punch of his moral indignation. Some years later he would put these to use against the most controversial dictionary ever published.
Learn more about the book and author at David Skinner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue