The Story of Ain't

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Next Tuesday, David Skinner's The Story of Ain't is coming out in a new paperback edition, with a new epilog. I'm happy to have this occasion to post an enthusiastic recommendation: You should immediately run out (virtually or physically) and buy this book, in any of its editions.

I began a similarly enthusiastic recommendation back when the book was originally published, in the fall of 2012. As usual for me, I framed the post around some quotations from the text — but every time I made a selection, I recalled an even better section a bit later, or realized that the full impact of the passage that I'd chosen required some background from an earlier chapter.  So my post never got posted.

This morning, I'll fall back on the publisher's blurb to tell you what the book is about:

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.

And to back up my personal enthusiasm, I'll tell a story.

Last summer I taught a course at the LSA Institute in Ann Arbor, and I brought my copy of The Story of Ain't with me, in the hopes of resolving my dilemma and finally posting a recommendation. One afternoon, my roommate Pieter Muysken happened to pick this book off my desk and sat on the living room couch to skim it.

For the next hour or so, Pieter regaled me with a series of variously commented passages: "Listen to this…", "Oh, this is funny…", "This man can write…", punctuated with bursts of laughter, grunts of appreciation, and dramatic readings of selected sentences, paragraphs, or pages.

My sentiments exactly. Do yourself a favor and buy this book!

 

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15 Comments »

  1. Neil Dolinger said,

    September 19, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    Looking forward to reading this. On first read of the publisher's blurb, it seemed overly charitable to describe someone who rejected the "scientific approach to language" as an intellectual. Hopefully the book will clears this up.

    [(myl) Dwight MacDonald was not only an intellectual, he was arguably the intellectual of that period, at least if you tally up the sociological indicia of that status.

    For another view of how a certain class of American intellectuals viewed "that dictionary", consider this passage from the opening of Rex Stout's Gambit, describing the reaction of Nero Wolfe, surely the most intellectual detective since Sherlock Holmes:

    More here.]

  2. What Mark Liberman Said on Language Log – David Skinner said,

    September 19, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    [...] run out (virtually or physically) and buy this book, in any of its editions." So sayeth Mark Liberman, University of Pennsylvania linguist, about The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and [...]

  3. Sidney Wood said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 4:30 am

    Does this book only deal with the American ain't? Or is my good old British ain't there too?

    [(myl) This book deals with the third edition of Webster's Unabridged, and the reaction to it.]

  4. languagehat said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    On first read of the publisher's blurb, it seemed overly charitable to describe someone who rejected the "scientific approach to language" as an intellectual.

    Oh, come on. Even today, it's hard to find intellectuals without special training in the field who accept the "scientific approach to language"; half a century ago, it was virtually impossible. You might as well say there were no intellectuals in Ancient Greece other than Aristarchus of Samos because he was the only one to accept the heliocentric theory of the universe.

  5. Faldone said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    As usual, languagehat is right. Intellectual doesn't necessarily mean smart.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 9:06 am

    The past is a different country indeed, and it is difficult to reconstruct the intellectual context in which Dwight Macdonald was viewed as a significant figure. But apparently the claim was made from time to time that he was an American analogue of Orwell, and it may be true insofar as he viewed issues of language use in crudely moralistic terms. (Indeed, I found on the internet a qualified appreciation of Macdonald by the crotchety Australian journalist R.J. Stove – son of the crotchety Australian philosopher David Stove — which drew this specific parallel to Orwell although he alas seemed to view this as a feature rather than a bug.)

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 10:57 am

    I became acquainted with Dwight Macdonald in the 50s when he was the film critic of Esquire, and I found him unfailingly reliable: If he liked a movie I knew I wouldn't like it, and vice versa.

  8. Neil Dolinger said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    The book is available on for Kindle readers, and I downloaded a copy last night. Alas, it is the first edition. Hopefully Amazon will update my copy when the second edition is released.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

    Faldone: "Intellectual doesn't necessarily mean smart."

    Not only that, "smart" doesn't necessarily mean "right", and neither does "scientific".

    Macdonald didn't (or said he didn't) object to a scientific approach to language; he objected to the use of such an approach in a dictionary, which he felt should include prescription. "The objection is not to recording the facts of actual usage. It is to failing to give the information that would enable the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt."

    Science hasn't decided what the proper function of a dictionary is. (I imagine a scientific survey could determine what users want and expect from an unabridged dictionary and how they might use the information they find. Readers of The Story of Ain't will know whether either Gove or his predecessors made any attempt at that.) For those who consider that function to be at least partly prescriptive, as far as I know science hasn't decided how a dictionary can fulfill that function best—for instance, what effects a change from Erron. and Illit. to Subst. and Nonst. (not necessarily respectively) would have.

    I'm not defending Macdonald's essay completely. It has a lot in it I'd object to. But I see nothing incongruous in calling someone an intellectual who disapproved of that particular dictionary's scientific approach.

    (Parts of his essay are available from Google Books here, at least for me. Incidentally, in the parts I can see, he's quite negative about the effect he expects Webster's Third to have on English, but he doesn't say that anything about it represented the unraveling of civilization.)

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

    Ah, "debasing our language by making it less precise." There's a nice knock-down argument for you, as the egg said to the little girl.

  11. James Wimberley said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    The dictionary of Spanish published by the Real Academia Española is a successful example of a prescriptive dictionary, to counterbalance the more famous failure of the Académie Française. And are not dictionaries aimed at learners, whether children or foreign students, implicitly prescriptive by omission?

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 1:01 am

    @Coby: In that role McDonald was acting as what I have called an "Oracle of Wrong". The implication is that such an oracle, once identified, is almost as valuable as a true oracle, but overwhelmingly more commonly encountered. We can identify several in politics (although it might be invidious to name them here) and more bylining newspaper editorials and hosting television cultural commentaries.

    I wonder if this "Oracle of Wrong" concept has already been explored under another name.

  13. Rodger C said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    I actually have fond memories of Dwight Macdonald as a political thinker–he called his position "Conservative Christian Anarchism"–but in culture he was a famously grumpy defender of the already eroding distinction between Highbrow and all other brows.

  14. Alon Lischinsky said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 9:09 am

    @James Wimberley:

    The dictionary of Spanish published by the Real Academia Española is a successful example of a prescriptive dictionary

    Successful in what sense? Certainly not in the sense of providing an uncontroversial description of the language.

  15. Graeme said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 5:05 am

    "The objection is not to recording the facts of actual usage. It is to failing to give the information that would enable the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt."

    Isnt that what dictionaries do with qualifications like 'coll' and '21st cent', or 'arch'?

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