“It takes true brilliance to lift the arid tellings of lexicographic fussing into the readable realm of the thriller and the bodice-ripper….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
The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner is the captivating true chronicle of the creation of Merriam Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961, the most controversial dictionary ever published. Skinner’s surprising and engaging, erudite and witty account will enthrall fans of Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, and The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, as it explores a culture in transition and the brilliant, colorful individuals behind it. The Story of Ain’t is a smart, often outrageous, and altogether remarkable tale of how egos, infighting, and controversy shaped one of America’s most authoritative language texts, sparking a furious language debate that the late, great author David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) once called “the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars.”
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.