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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Fifty years ago, the publication of a new Webster's dictionary set off a storm of criticism whose repercussions are still with us. A new book about that controversy has our linguist Geoff Nunberg thinking about how our ideas about language have changed.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: I have a quibble with the title of David Skinner's new book, "The Story of Ain't." In fact, that pariah contraction plays only a supporting role in the story. The book is really an account of one of the oddest episodes in American cultural history: the brouhaha over the appearance of "Merriam-Webster's Third International Dictionary" in 1961.

The controversy even made it into a New Yorker cartoon by Alan Dunn. It showed a receptionist at the Merriam-Webster Company telling a visitor, sorry, Dr. Gove ain't in. That would be Philip Babcock Gove, the editor of the "Third." Gove was a crusty former Naval officer from New Hampshire and an unlikely target for vilifications like saboteur and Bolshevik, but it was his fate to become the only American lexicographer whose name could appear in a New Yorker cartoon caption without need of further identification.

Fifty years later, the episode still stands as the Scopes Monkey Trial of American literary culture and, as with that earlier face-off, it isn't clear even now who came out on top or what it was really about. A lot of people make the mistake of taking the controversy literally, as if it was basically just an argument about words, but debates about language are always proxy wars. They're the dream work of culture, the play within a play, where social anxieties are restaged as soap opera. When you hear people keening histrionically about the confusion of like and as, you can safely assume there's something else going on.

David Skinner understands that it takes some cultural background to explain why so many sane and distinguished persons could see a dictionary as representing the end of the world. True, for a lot of those people. Attacking the "Third" was simply a way of asserting their own claims to refinement.

But serious critics like Dwight Macdonald saw graver things at stake. To him, the "Third" stood in for all the forces ranged against art and high culture. It enshrined the kitsch and vulgarity of mass culture and the smug middlebrow consumerism of the Book of the Month Club and it defended itself with the bloodless jargon of the social sciences.

Our debates about usage still have that melodramatic tenor, but they don't have the same cultural significance. Nobody objects now when a dictionary includes some hip-hop slang or a texting abbreviation. Oxford boasts about adding wassup and BFF. Merriam's counters with sexting and ear worm. The American Heritage adds manboob and vuvuzela. Nowadays, a dictionary entry is about as hard to come by as a Facebook profile.

Since the time of Webster's Third, people have been framing these issues as a pseudo-philosophical dispute between descriptivist and prescriptivist views of language, the one telling it like it is, the other telling it like it ought to be. But actually all dictionaries are in the business of describing the language as it is. What really changes is the idea of the language itself.

Back in Dwight MacDonald's era, it was still just possible to think of the English language as a single great stream with its sources in literary tradition rolling majestically past the evanescent slang and jargon scattered on its banks. That was a glorious fiction, even then, but it isn't a credible picture when all the old distinctions have been effaced between high and low, formal and casual, print and oral, public and private.

Where do you locate the mainstream of English in the flood of words that pours in over all the screens in our lives? It's not a stream at all, just a limitless ocean of yammer. Even with their modern tools, you have to feel for the lexicographers who are out there trying to sift through it all.

No dictionary will ever again create an uproar like the one over "Webster's Third," yet we still cling to the idea that a dictionary entry confers official recognition on a word. When the OED announced that it would be including texting abbreviations like LOL, The New York Times praised it for an affirmation of the plasticity of the English language.

Now, it wasn't as if millions of teenagers had been waiting with their thumbs poised for Oxford's approval, but I like to think of the Times' deference as an acknowledgment that lexicographers still have a cultural role to play. Though I admit it might also just be an anachronistic holdover from an age when the dictionary spoke with unquestioned authority before "Webster's Third" changed everything. After all, even Facebook was once exclusive, too.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Information. His new book is called "Ascent of the A-Word." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at #NPRFreshAir and on Tumblr at nprfreshAir.Tumblr.com.

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