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!

 

 

 

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Comments
by Fricka on ‎10-28-2012 11:02 AM

Lots of fodder to chew on there, Ellen. As an English Lit student in college, I remember being taken aback when, in the course of a linguistics class, I heard an in-class recording of  British dialects saying "Ain't". For some reason, I'd thought that the word was a crass American invention, obviously made to stand in for I Am Not(Try saying "Amn't" and you'll see why "Ain't" became used as the short form.) As for the use of the double negative  being labeled as non-standard English, there's an apochryphal story that the ban was laid down by a Mahematician. ( Going on the principle that two negatives become a postive, as is the case in Math). However, unlike in Math, when one uses a double negative in a sentence, it's for emphasis. No one in his or her right mind, for example, would think that the speaker of the following meant the opposite: " I ain't  never a-gonna do that nohow. ." Do we interpret that sentence and others like it to mean that the speaker is indeed going to do whatever was referenced previously? No, we do not. We understand that the speaker is using double or triple negatives for emphasis. It's too bad, really, that teachers have been brainwashed to exclude those kinds of expressions from composition papers, as it's a fairly muscular use of language, and used judiciously would add a lot of flavor to a paper.

As for words I dislike, I hate the word, "Snuck". Hated it the first time I heard it, and was dismayed to hear it being used on television, BY NEWS REPORTERS! My feelings about telejournalists have never been the same since. I mean, what is wrong with "sneaked"???? 

As for combination words I could live without, I nominate "gi-normous." What, "giant" and "enormous" are not sufficient unto themselves???? Ughhhhh Hmmm, maybe I ought to reword that previous thought to : "What, 'giant' and 'enormous' ain't good enough??" .Well, I ain't never gonna use it, that's all.Heh, Heh. :catlol:

by MoodyBeachReader on ‎11-10-2012 07:53 PM

I'm delighted to have come across at least two kindred spirits - that is to say, two others who abhor the depreciation of the intrinsic worth (and power, of course) of the English language.  I only wish there were but one source for the invasion, but the reasons for accepting the use of what is truly unacceptable language are myriad.  That said, I am of the generation that instituted "cool" as a powerful stand-in for just about any positive adjective one could find.  As it is for the evolution of musical taste, each generation views the one behind it as having lost the ability to discern proper English.

 

    I would make the argument that standards for proper English should be significantly stricter when it is in writing;  I never used "cool" to describe my enthusiasm for King Lear.  However, as it has in so many other areas, technology has provided the slippery slope from informal spoken English to informal (I use the term loosely) written English.  Just try to figure out what your kids are texting to their friends and you'll see what I mean.  In fact, I think one could argue that texting, messaging, Im'ing, whatever has, or have, given rise to an entirely new language, one spoken fluently only by those 20 and under.  I learned what LOL meant about 6 months ago; I hate it.

 

 

       In any event, as you may have gathered, the deterioration of language is my favorite pet peeve.  And it goes well with my tirades about the indefensibly insufficient English curriculum that my own children have experienced.  Just think - our children are graduating from high school with an MIT-level ability to use technology and yet they cannot put together a basic 3-page analysis of anything - not a lucid argument, a coherent procession of logic, and most certainly not a semantically interesting, or at least grammatically correct, sentence.   I wonder how many of them know what an "Oxford Comma" is.  What they do write, naturally, is correctly spelled, thanks to Spellcheck.   AAAArrrggghhhh!

 

I have not yet read The Story of Ain't, and I am torn as to whether it would aggravate an already throbbing headache.  I would, however, highly recommend Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, which chronicles the development of the Oxford English Dictionary.    The latter, I would argue, is the only dictionary that counts.

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