You think election time is tense? Try talking about words in the dictionary. Seriously.
The Story of Ain't, a new book by David Skinner about the controversy when "ain't" made it into Webster's Third New International Dictionary, reminds us that words once were--and still can be--fighting words. Perhaps ain't ain't a big deal anymore, but what are the words we just won't use now?
Culture wars heat up. Words fly; tempers flame; friends fry each other. Oftentimes it's the words we employ that make our tempers boil.
Words about sexual identity and race are always hot topics. What one group considers derogatory or beyond the pale of polite conversation may--or may not--be acceptable when used by those inside the group they refer to, but may cause pain and violence when used by others.
These are not the words Skinner writes about in The Story of Ain't. The book is about the 1961 publication of Webster's Third New International dictionary, and the words that editor Philip Gove included that caused trouble were words considered "slang" or "substandard." It wasn't the inclusion of insulting or offensive language, it was the inclusion of what was considered improper or incorrect language.
So-called "cultural gatekeepers," particularly critic Dwight MacDonald, castigated Gove for allowing such substandard, uneducated slang and dialect into the dictionary, which many considered the authority on proper English. To many readers, words in the dictionary somehow seemed approved by authorities--it was okay to use them without sounding uneducated, ignorant, or stupid.
When the word "ain't" was included, some people felt like civilization was ending. There were no more barriers between how people really spoke (descriptive) and how they should speak (prescriptive).
When I first picked up the book, I admit I thought, "how quaint!" Who would make such strong prescriptive judgments anymore? We all understand that usage is relative, that we have many levels or registers of speaking or writing, and that what's correct in a text message has no place in a business email.
Or do we? My husband and I had dinner with a younger couple who used the word "ridunculous" or "ridunk" repeatedly. We had a great time, finished dessert, and walked home asking each other when ridunculous had become so widespread. I don't think that either of, both editors, really wanted to have to see that in our authors' copy anytime soon. It seemed too slangy...too, substandard.
Yes, those old prejudices die hard. We want our words to mean what we want them to mean. And we don't always want new slang to be as instantly accepted as our old favorites, like "ridiculous" or "dude," do we?
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
--Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
What words do YOU wish weren't in the dictionary? Which neologisms bother you?
We'd love to know!