“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.
Read the rest of this entry »