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Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by the editor Philip Gove, Webster's Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating "artificial notions of correctness," basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary's revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called "the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars." Editors and scholars howled for Gove's blood, calling him an enemy of clear thinking, a great relativist who was trying to sweep the English language into chaos. Critics bayed at the dictionary's permissive handling of ain't. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the dictionary's scientific approach to language and its abandonment of the old standard of usage represented the unraveling of civilization.
Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain't describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.
“An immensely entertaining history…Skinner manages to transform this somewhat arcane lexicographical dispute into a real page turner…Skinner ably and amusingly captures the hysterical tone of the bitter public quarrel while suggesting that it foreshadowed many of the arguments over values and standards that we’re still fighting about today.”
“Mr. Skinner does a fine job detailing the controversy that greeted Webster’s Third, but he is even stronger when describing the internal politics at Merriam and the mechanics of revising a dictionary.”
-Wall Street Journal
“A highly entertaining, thoughtful new book.”
“…comprehensive and evenhanded, and written in a clear and jaunty style…What in less skilled hands might have been arid and parochial in David Skinner’s becomes a lively account of a subject of interest to anyone concerned about the English language in America.”
“Skinner has written an entertaining book about a controversy that still lingers and throws light on how emotional our ties to language are….a funny and informative account.”
“Skinner…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…a rich and absorbing exploration of the changing standards in American language and culture.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A compelling reminder of the cultural significance of words and word-making.”
-Booklist (starred review)
“A fascinating, highly entertaining cultural history that will enchant an audience beyond word nerds....Skinner nimbly, concisely--and without academic dryness--traces the everyday changes that shaped what came out of Americans’ mouths and into our dictionaries.”
“It takes true brilliance to lift the arid tellings of lexicographic fussing into the readable realm of the thriller and the bodice-ripper. With his riveting account…David Skinner has done precisely this, taking a fine story and honing it to popular perfection.”
-Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlantic
“The flap over Webster’s Third in 1961 was a never-to-be-repeated episode in American cultural history…. David Skinner tells it brilliantly…as he brings to life the odd cast of characters who played a role in the affair.”
-Geoffrey Nunberg, University of California at Berkeley, emeritus chair of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, language commentator, "Fresh Air," NPR
“A fascinating account of a major paradigm shift in the American language, when a group of bold lexicographers decided to tell it like it is and causing a huge cultural rumpus. This is more than just a story about a new edition of a dictionary.”
-Christopher Buckley, New York Times bestselling author of They Eat Puppies, Don't They? and Thank You for Smoking
“David Skinner tells the tale of a great battle in the 1960s War Between the Real and the Ideal. It was a conflict with realists laying claim to idealism and idealists asserting realism and vice versa. Skinner makes it all clear.”
-P.J. O'Rourke, New York Times bestselling author of Holidays in Heck and Don't Vote--It Just Encourages
“A cultural story as much as a linguistic one, teeming with colorful characters and big ideas, The Story of Ain’t is a must read for anybody who loves language.”
-Toby Lester, author of Da Vinci's Ghost and The Fourth Part of the World