Former Weekly Standard editor and current Humanities magazine editor Skinner debuts with the story of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, whose 1961 publication prompted assorted pundits to declare that the end of civilization was nigh.
Imagine a time when a dictionary could animate the media as much as a political sex scandal. It wasn’t that long ago. Skinner, who serves on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, knows dictionaries and how they are made and devotes a large portion of his attention to the nouns-and-verbs aspects of lexicography. (How are words discovered and selected? How are definitions written? Where do the examples come from?) The author also profiles the people who made the decisions about the book, including Dr. Philip Gove, editor-in-chief for the project, and his predecessors and successors. The author also sketches the stories of the dictionary’s harshest critics, principally Dwight Macdonald, whose biography Skinner distributes throughout. He examines the powerful cultural forces involved, including the rise of structural linguistics and cultural relativism, the effects of TV and movies on vocabulary, and the country’s changing demographics. We learn why the F-bomb and others are not in the book, and why Gove changed the style of definitions, why he included so many varying pronunciations, and why he viewed the volume as descriptive rather than prescriptive. This latter function is what ignited critics, many of whom believed the lexicographers had caved and had no interest in maintaining standards. (The author points out that ain’t was in many dictionaries, including Webster’s Second.) Skinner carefully identifies the critics’ errors and the lexicographers’ missteps, and he explores the economics and politics of the dictionary business.
Perhaps too much Macdonald and not enough logo-geekery, but a well-researched, even loving, look at our language and its landlords.