Synopses & Reviews
“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 Aint by David Skinner is the captivating true chronicle of the creation of Merriam Websters Third New International Dictionary in 1961, the most controversial dictionary ever published. Skinners surprising and engaging, erudite and witty account will enthrall fans of Winchesters 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 Aint is a smart, often outrageous, and altogether remarkable tale of how egos, infighting, and controversy shaped one of Americas 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 .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. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn Agency." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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.
About the Author
David Skinner is a writer and editor living in Alexandria, Virginia. He writes about language, culture, and his life as a husband, father, and suburbanite. He has been a staff editor at the Weekly Standard, for which he still writes, and an editor of Doublethink magazine. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New Atlantis, Slate, the Washington Times, the American Spectator, and many other publications. Skinner is the editor of Humanities magazine, which is published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary.