by

Unabridged

In 1961, the most shocking event in American lexicographical history took place: publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

Half a century later, it’s hard to imagine the shock and awe it engendered among those who held “The Dictionary” in reverence, and who took Webster’s New International Dictionary to be The Dictionary, not only because it was The Authority but also because it also was The Unabridged.

Its predecessor, the 1934 second edition of the International, certainly looked and weighed like The Authority. It was literally on a pedestal, a bookstand, in libraries, schools, and newsrooms. It had more than 600,000 entries on more than 3,000 pages, all in a single hefty volume. It was interspersed here and there with full-page color plates of fish, flags, and the like.

Consulting it in the 1950s, you could be sure that it was free of the latest slang, or indeed of any ephemeral new words. Teachers and editors could declare, “If it’s not in the dictionary, it’s not a word.” After all, if it was unabridged, that must mean it included every legitimate word, right? And that made it The Authority.

Still, by the 1950s it was clear that a new edition would be needed. There were, after all, some legitimate new terms to be included, like atom bomb. So the Merriam Company  gathered a large staff under the direction of Philip B. Gove, Ph.D., and spent a decade and $3.5-million on the revision. Webster’s Third New International added 100,000 new words, but it dropped many more, so its entries were reduced to 450,000. And gone were the illustrations, proper names, and all encyclopedic information. It was pure dictionary.

That reduction bothered reviewers. But what shocked them was its permissiveness. Instead of recording what people should say, it recorded what they did say. “Educated and cultured people,” to be sure, but that made it all the more painful to read that the new dictionary caught them saying ain’t: “Though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers in the phrase ain’t I.

Did that mean you could no longer say “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary”? Well, it turns out that ain’t  had been in the 1934 edition, too, but there it was labeled “Dialect or Illiterate.”

And that was just the most glaring shocker. The new Unabridged caught cultivated speakers saying “Who was that lady I saw you with?” in one sentence violating prescriptive rules about both pronoun case and sentence-ending prepositions. And it used illustrative quotations from contemporaries including not just Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, but also Mickey Spillane, Ethel Merman, Willie Mays, and even Polly Adler, author of A House Is Not a Home and a notorious brothel owner.

(It’s the only dictionary that prompted publication of an anthology of reviews, Dictionaries and That Dictionary, edited by the noted linguist James Sledd with Wilma Ebbitt. It’s still available.)

All that kept the Third from replacing the Second on many pedestals. The backlash also encouraged other publishers to meet the needs of editors and teachers who went looking for other authorities. That’s why journalists now take Webster’s New World as their lexicographic authority, and in part why we now have the American Heritage Dictionary as well. And why nowadays we generally recognize that, just as the Bible comes in more than the King James Version, good dictionaries come in more than one version too.

In the long run, the accomplishments of the 1961 Third have been recognized, including its comprehensiveness and its distinctive and precise definitions. And ever since 1961 both foes and fans have been asking when Merriam-Webster will publish the Fourth. The answer came recently, and it was a surprise that I’ll tell about next time.

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