Book Review: The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner

The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published
by David Skinner
Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
2012
308 pages

This ain’t an easy read.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

I’m not going to mince words here: this book is tedious.

I know. You’re probably thinking, “Well, what did you expect from a book about the writing of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged? Of course it’s going to be tedious.”

True that. But I’ve come to like my nonfiction a little bit on the entertaining side, and with the exception of a few portions of a couple chapters, The Story of Ain’t is rather dry.

Let’s start with the positives. I found the premise of the book kind of fascinating – and I think anyone who is a word nerd would too. Skinner traces American culture and history through the decades between the time of the publication of Webster’s Second (in 1934) and Webster’s Third (1961). The idea is that historical events (the World Wars, namely) as well as pop culture, demographics, and lifestyle changes during those decades all produced new words and phrases. Webster’s Third would include “100,000 new words and senses, a massive amount that Merriam called ‘the greatest vocabulary explosion in history.'” (pg. 241)

By the 1960s, this meant that the dictionary needed to be a much larger book than before – which required considerable debate and discussion by an Editorial Board about what, exactly constituted a dictionary. In those days, the dictionary was akin to an encyclopedia – with lists and tables and facts.

I felt myself wanting to yell back in time at them that they were wasting their time, that we really won’t give a damn by 2014 whether tables of archery rounds were included in the dictionary. That – hate to break it to you – things are reeeaalllllly gonna change and it ain’t gonna matter too much.

Also, there was way too much detail on the biographical information on the Editorial Board members and the various other players involved in the dictionaries. That’s where The Story of Ain’t lost me, because I was simply not interested in these people. They annoyed me. Maybe I’ve sat in too many of these kinds of meetings or dealt with too many of these sort of people.

“But the board also slowed down the works. The minutes of the Editorial Board’s meetings stretched to two thousand pages, filling eleven volumes.

‘To me,’ Gove told the current eight members of the board, ‘that represents a stupendous, if not stultifying, waste of time.’ In one instance, he said, the Webster’s Second board had spent at least an hour discussing whether hot dog should be in the dictionary.” (pg. 175

Anyone who has ever sat in any kind of committee meeting can relate to these sort of goings-on.

But here’s the thing (and another thing I found intriguing from a marketing and sales perspective): back then, all this really was important because there were also commercial and marketing considerations to think about, too. The dictionary was a very important money-maker.

“Sales of dictionaries in 1958 totaled $25 million [and] were, according to some, second only to Bibles among all-time bestsellers, but they were more expensive to make. The American College Dictionary had reportedly cost Random House $2 million to make from scratch. The Webster’s New World had reportedly cost $1 million in 1950.” (pg. 236-238).

It’s kind of funny in a time when we’re so accustomed to SpellCheck and dictionary.com, but there really was once upon a time when the dictionary was iconic, truly a coffee table book, a treasured centerpiece in the living room, the source of all knowledge.

Now, it’s a relic and the controversy that surrounded the publication of Webster’s Third – starting with its own press release touting the inclusion of the word ain’t in the dictionary- is all but forgotten. The discussion of such, which is one of the tenets of the book, seems to come almost too late for the reader to be fully invested, because of the … um, wordiness, of the previous pages. I found myself almost skimming over this section, wanting to just be finished.

Skinner’s book is a reminder of when language mattered in a way that is different than the politically correct form in which we’ve come to know it. The Story of Ain’t is, ultimately, America’s story about the evolution of our history and culture – and the words and phrases that live on today as part of that history and culture.

2.5 stars out of 5

 

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