According to David Skinner, "Ain't that the truth", Humanities 30(4), July/August 2009:
In 1961 a new edition of an old and esteemed dictionary was released. The publisher courted publicity, noting the great expense ($3.5 million) and amount of work (757 editor years) that went into its making.
That would be $4,623.51 per editor-year, if none of the $3.5M went for typesetters, pencils, rent, or other expenses. And if I'm reading this CPI table right, the ratio of today's prices to those of 1960 is around 213.856/29.5, or about 7.25 to 1; so in today's dollars, the yearly per-editor costs would be around $33,520. Apparently lexicographers worked cheap in those days.
The new dictionary in question was Webster's Third New International (Unabridged), and as Skinner explains,
It was judged “subversive” and denounced in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Life, and dozens of other newspapers, magazines, and professional journals.
Skinner's discussion reminds us of how serious the controversy over Webster's Third really was. As a teen in the 1960s, I was vaguely aware of the fuss, but I saw it as faintly ridiculous histrionics, like Jerry Falwell's denunciation of the Teletubbies. That's because the only sign of it that I encountered at the time was the opening of Rex Stout's Gambit, published in 1962, where Nero Wolfe tears pages out of the dictionary, one by one, and throws them into the fire. Archie explains to a would-be client:
She was staring up at me. "He's burning up a dictionary?"
"Right. That's nothing. Once he burned up a cookbook because it said to remove the hide from a ham end before putting it in the pot with lima beans. Which he loves most, food or words, is a tossup."
Perhaps as a result, I never paid much attention to the details of the controversy. And four decades later, David Foster Wallace's long essay about the usage wars ("Tense Present", Harper's, April 2001) confirmed my impression that the furor over W3 was just clownish posturing by fussy eccentrics. (For chapter and verse on the clownishness, read languagehat's 8/12/2002 post "David Foster Wallace Demolished.) But Skinner's article suggests that the W3 controversy was a sign of a more serious set of issues in American intellectual history.
Major zeitgeist tremors aside, Skinner untangles a small scholarly puzzle about Wallace's 2001 article. DFW rails against "Descriptivism's five basic edicts", attributed to "[Philip] Gove's now classic introduction to Webster's Third". As Skinner explains, the quoted passage doesn't come from anywhere in W3, but rather from an article "Linguistic advances and lexicography" that Gove wrote for Word Study, a Merriam-Webster newsletter for teachers.
In a 2003 comment at Metafilter, before taking up DFW's arguments against this list of "Descriptivism's edicts", languagehat observed that
I have a copy of Webster's Third International, and there's no such list; in fact, there's no Introduction, just a short Preface that doesn't discuss theoretical matters. But I don't want to be unfair; rather than assume DFW is making the whole thing up, I'll assume my printing is lacking the Introduction.
As Skinner explains, Gove's article in Word Study quoted five "precepts of linguistics", which he took from a 1952 work The English Language Arts, by the Commission on the English Curriculum of the National Council of Teachers of English. According to Elizabeth Rusk in The School Review, 60(8): 500-501, 1952, this work "represents a major attempt at consensus on basic issues […] The thirty-one members of the Commission and the more than one hundred members of the Committee on Reading and Literature represent all levels of the educational system and all sections of the country."
The Commission's five "precepts of linguistics" were:
1—Language changes constantly.
2—Change is normal.
3—Spoken language is the language.
4—Correctness rests upon usage.
5—All usage is relative.
Skinner observes that "[w]hile these precepts may seem quite radical, they are in reality a defense of convention".
Read Skinner's article for more on how DFW made this list "the centerpiece of a somewhat lengthy attack on Webster’s Third and Gove’s editing of it". Skinner gives us a hint about how this probably happened:
[Dwight] Macdonald attributed W3’s radical departure from what he called “the old school” to the sinister influence of structural linguistics. As evidence, he quoted from, without tracing the exact source, Gove’s article on the teaching of language arts, “Linguistic Advances and Lexicography.” Wrote Macdonald, “Dr. Gove and the other makers of 3 are sympathetic to the school of language study that has become dominant since 1934. It is sometimes called Structural Linguistics.” He then introduced the five precepts mentioned earlier by making it sound as if Gove had written them, “Dr. Gove gives its basic concepts as . . .”
So it's likely that DFW got the list of "edicts" from MacDonald's review, which was republished in his 1962 collection of essays Against the American Grain. DFW probably didn't get it directly from Gove's little article "Linguistic Advances and Lexicography", which would have been hard for him to find in 2001; and he certainly didn't get it from the source that he attributes it to, namely Gove's Introduction to W3, since there is no such introduction, and the Preface is brief and innocuous.
A more careful textual analysis of Wallace, MacDonald, and Gove might confirm or refute this hypothesis, which suggests that Wallace was guilty of the form of semi-plagiarism that consists of failing to cite the intermediate source of a quotation, and failing to check the quotation against its primary source.
It seems fair to wonder if Wallace, for all his bluster, had much experience using W3. In the same essay, he credited Philip Gove with coining the terms descriptivist and prescriptivist to represent the warring sides over usage, but he could have looked up the terms to find they were already so defined in W3, in which case they certainly predated Gove’s use of them following the dictionary’s publication. He also repeats the old Life magazine mistake concerning irregardless and commits yet another concerning the labeling of the dialectical variant heighth.
Or he could have checked the OED, and found these citations:
1952 T. PYLES Words & Ways Amer. Eng. xi. 272 He is likely not to see any reason why absolute uniformity, the desideratum of the prescriptivist, should be any particular concern of the student of language even if it were possible of attainment.
1960 J. O. URMSON Conc. Encycl. Western Philos. 143 To call a thing good is thereby to offer guidance about choices; and the same might be said of the other moral terms. Descriptivists, however, refuse to admit that this feature is part of the meaning of moral terms. Their principal opponents, who may be called ‘prescriptivists’, hold that it is part of the meaning.
1954 College Eng. 15 396/1 Two of the three objectionable forms..are older than the prescriptivist objection to them.
[A small Bierce/Hartman/McKean/Skitt note: the HTML <title> of Skinner's article reads "Webster's Third Dictionaary". Also, W3 aficionados will want to read languagehat's "Ohel on Webster's Third", 3/30/2009.]