The enormity of Webster’s Third

“I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language.” – Lionel Trilling

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, first published in 1961, was among the most contentious reference books of its time. It signalled a clear editorial shift from its 1934 predecessor, most controversially in that it empirically described conventional English usage more than it prescribed ‘correct’ usage (as Webster’s Second had done). Where W2 had liberally applied labels like erroneous, incorrect, improper, vulgar, and ludicrous, W3 preferred to label words as substandard and nonstandard, and did so only infrequently.

The response to its publication was mixed, to put it mildly. Some luminaries accused Webster’s of abandoning its authority; others denounced the book’s permissiveness (unlike W2, it included many taboo words; this remains a sticky subject). Wilson Follett described its makers as “patient and dedicated saboteurs”, declaring their work “a scandal and a disaster” and fulminating that it had “thrust upon us a dismaying assortment of the questionable, the perverse, the unworthy, and the downright outrageous”. Jacques Barzun said that he didn’t read it all, but that he laughed at least once on every page he read.

So much for the sobriety of Merriam-Webster’s cardinal virtues of dictionary making: accuracy, clearness, and comprehensiveness.

The New York Times advised its staff to keep referring to W2, feeling that its successor could “only accelerate the deterioration of the mother tongue”. The National Review found W3 “big, expensive and ugly” and said it had “only one standard – inclusiveness”. The Journal of the American Bar Association called it “a flagrant example of lexicographic irresponsibility”, while the Richmond News Leader said that no school or library was compelled to buy it,* and that “no English teacher need respect its corruptions” [via]. Dwight Macdonald, in an influential savaging in the New Yorker, called it a “massacre” and wondered “where completeness ends and madness begins”. He said it had “made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up himself”.

Solid structure? Himself?! At this point I need to remind myself that yes, he was writing about the English language.

A few critics were less caustic and appreciated W3’s non-judgemental approach and modern linguistic sense. (Though they generally had reservations too.) Mario Pei noted its “many commendable features”, predicting that it would “enjoy a healthy life, even if not too prolonged”, while Robert Burchfield described it as “a bold landmark fashioned to meet the needs of the present”. Ethel Strainchamps praised the dictionary in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch review, then wrote a follow-up article that addressed the shortcomings of some of the criticism. She believed the attacks suggested a “cultural lag”, about which more below.

Back to the complaints. Life magazine castigated the dictionary in a peevish editorial:

Webster’s, joining in the say-as-you-go school of permissive English, has now all but abandoned any attempt to distinguish between good and bad usage – between the King’s English, say, and the fishwife’s. Its rule of thumb seems to be: anything people say goes into the book. Thus, that most monstrous of all non-words – “irregardless” – is included. . . . [A]ll such enormities are compounded by approving “enormity” as a synonym of “enormousness”…

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The editorial was tellingly titled “A non-word deluge”, revealing both a prejudicial stance against non-standard terms and a paranoid fear of being somehow overwhelmed by them. (Irregardless remains non-standard, but it is a word, and whether it’s monstrous or not is a matter of opinion, not fact. For more on the alleged non-wordiness of certain words, see this post.)

Philip Gove, Webster’s then editor-in-chief, wrote rebuttals to the NY Times and other publications, stressing that – whether anyone liked it or not – the language of the 1960s was not the language of the 1920s and 1930s. He sent a letter to Life pointing out that irregardless was also in their beloved second edition (labelled erroneous and humorous; W3 called it nonstandard), that W3 neither approved nor even listed enormity as a synonym for enormousness, and that “the responsibility of a dictionary is to record the language, not set its style”. That is to say: to record is not implicitly to condone. Gove underlined the point with the following analogy:

For us to attempt to prescribe the language would be like Life reporting the news as its editors would prefer it to happen.

You might also have noticed the subtle, unthinking sexism of Life’s rant, evident not only in its casual use of fishwife as a scornful symbol of someone with a poor standard of English, but also in its erroneous description of the language as “the King’s English”. Since Elizabeth was the reigning British monarch in 1961, “the Queen’s English” is the phrase that was needed. (I’ll ignore, for now, how problematic are both terms.) It’s a remarkable oversight, especially given that guidance on this matter is apparently included in both the second and third editions of Webster’s.

In May 1962, some months after the initial furore, lexicographer Bergen Evans observed in The Atlantic: “Never has a scholarly work of this stature been attacked with such unbridled fury and contempt.” James Sledd, a colleague of Evans’ who co-edited an anthology about the controversy, remarked on “the breathless condemnation of the incompetent”. The dispute seemed to reflect broader cultural clashes: the shift from old methods and ideas to new ones was, for some, too abrupt and unsettling a transition. But Evans wrote with grace and insight about the shifting terrain of language:

I can only say that it’s nice to be informed and sigh to realize that I am becoming an old fogy. . . . In part, the trouble is due to the fact that there is no standard for standard. Ideas of what is proper to use in serious, dignified speech and writing are changing — and with breathtaking rapidity. This is one of the major facts of contemporary American English. but it is no more the dictionary’s business to oppose this process than to speed it up.

His was a measured contribution to what was (and remains) an intense debate about the relative merits of prescriptivism and descriptivism, the question of whether English is or is notdeteriorating’, and the role of dictionaries in arbitrating on usage. Gove himself took an active part in the debate, corresponding with critics and allies alike. “The forces of uninformed traditionalism are so strong,” he wrote, “that I expect to struggle against them for the rest of my life with success only here or there.”

Language changes all the time. As David Guralnik wrote: “Change, even change through error, has been a natural process in our language from its very beginnings, and nature is not to be denied.” Dictionaries can scarcely keep pace, but they can be commended for trying. W3 was a radical new edition also because it excised much of W2’s biographical, geographical, and other encyclopaedic material. Usage, too, has become more of a category in its own right. Some dictionaries append usage notes to disputed definitions, but if you want extended advice there are many dedicated usage dictionaries. Having a few of them at hand helps keep bias at bay, and notions of correctness and acceptability in their place: forever open to revision.

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* Speaking of which, G. & C. Merriam, now Merriam-Webster, were subject to a takeover attempt by the American Heritage Company, who were appalled by W3 and later published a dictionary of their own (which, for what it’s worth, I keep by my desk and refer to regularly).

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12 Responses to The enormity of Webster’s Third

  1. Michael Rundell says:

    The ironic thing is that Webster’s Philip Gove – scourge of traditionalists, and seen by many as dangerously permissive – applied with unbending rigour a user-hostile lexicographic style which makes many of his dictionary’s definitions incomprehensible to anyone but another lexicographer. To quote Sidney Landau, he often ‘sacrificed intelligibility to a purity of style bordering on lunacy’. Meanwhile American Heritage – explicitly produced, as you say, to save the world from Webster’s enormities – employs a pleasingly straightforward and accessible style of definition.

  2. John Cowan says:

    It’s also well worth noticing that NID2 was, in every way bar the status labels, an entirely descriptivist dictionary. If they didn’t print four-letter words, it was because they could have gotten into legal trouble for doing so. The notion that NID3 represented a revolutionary change in Merriam-Webster, or American, dictionary making is just false.

    Semi-OT: I note that RHD’97 is now online at infoplease.com, so all three American unabridged dictionaries are now available online without charge (but you do have to know how to get to NID3).

  3. John Cowan says:

    I forgot to mention that the King’s English is a fixed expression in AmE, and is quite independent of which particular Guelf or Wettin or Wipper is sitting on the ancient Throne of Britain at the moment, and of whatever languages he or she may or may not speak.

  4. Stan says:

    Thank you both for your insights.

    Michael, that is ironic indeed. I wonder what motivated his allegiance to a user-unfriendly style. My copy of the AHD is a mass-market paperback (4th ed.); its clear presentation and physical ease of use are among the reasons I consult it so readily.

    John: That’s a good point about the potential legal difficulties. I should have thought of it. In what I wrote, I hoped to convey the significant departure W3 represented, but I wouldn’t call it a ‘revolutionary’ edition any more than you would. Thanks for enlightening me about the expression The King’s English. Given how politically loaded it is, it seems strange that it should have become fixed.

  5. Michael Rundell says:

    John may be right that NID3 wasn’t as revolutionary as it was perceived to be, but the public outcry was real enough. A year later (1962) a whole book was published about the controversy NID3 created: James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbit, editors. Dictionaries and That Dictionary. Chicago: Scott Foresman, 1962.

  6. language hat says:

    Good post, good comments. I wrote about W3 here; I’ll quote a nice summary from Landau: “The policies Gove promulgated and saw through seemed designed to improve the art of lexicography rather than to produce a fine commercial dictionary. That they did both, in spite of some of the lapses of Webster’s Third, is a testament to the quality of the Merriam staff and to Gove’s integrity and assiduity as a lexicographer.”

  7. John Cowan says:

    Though the U.S. and the U.K. are indeed two countries divided by a common language, there are these odd survivals. Our one-cent coin has said ONE CENT on it since at least 1794, only a few years after the establishment of the Constitution in 1787, and yet we continue after more than two centuries to call the coins pennies (not pence) as well as cents. Money of account is always cents, however.

  8. John Cowan says:

    The American use of the King’s English may be compared to an Italian way of saying “What, are you deaf?”, namely Parlò italiano o turco ottomano?, and remains so even though the Ottoman Empire fell more than 90 years ago.

  9. Sean Jeating says:

    Obviously we are witnessing a bloody phenomenon: menstruation.

  10. Stan says:

    Michael: Yes, I referred to that book, though I didn’t name it, in the fourth paragraph from the end: “an anthology about the controversy”. I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

    language hat: Thanks for the quote by Landau, and for the link. Yours is an excellent post, with illuminating discussion; I’m sorry I neglected to include it, but I’m pleased you reminded me of it.

    John: Those are interesting examples, thank you. I still think the King’s English is a sexist (and strange) default setting.

    Sean: Unless I’m missing something, manland is that-a-way.

  11. Leo Wong says:

    Barzun still laughs, or at least smiles. See Writers on Writing: An Interview with Jacques Barzun (2010): http://vimeo.com/16423966

  12. [...] * A fiercely contentious reference book which I wrote about here. [...]

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