DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I Ain't Gonna Not Use Ain't No More

It was decried as the end of civilization. It was denounced by organizations as prestigious and powerful as The New York Times and the American Bar Association. Conservatives detected it as yet another symbol of the permissiveness of society as a whole and the decline of authority. It created controversy and concerns in colleges and classrooms across the country. And just what was this threat? It was the 1961  publication of Webster's 3rd Dictionary, the so-called permissive dictionary.

But writer David Skinner believes that much of the consternation from that more formal era has proven to be unfounded. "Just because Webster's (3rd) contained the word beatnik, does not make it the beatnik dictionary," he says.

Skinner, the editor of Humanities magazine and a current contributor to The Weekly Standard, appeared recently at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research to discuss his new book The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. 

If you were forced to choose the inclusion of one word that captured the controversy between those like dictionary editor Philip Cove who wanted to see the book be inclusive,and its detractors, who favored keeping linguistic exclusivity, it would be "ain't". Many were shocked to see the word "ain't" included in an authoritative work on words. The 1961 Webster's called ain't "a word used orally in most parts of the United States by cultivated speakers." That designation prompted many variations of newspaper headlines like "Ain't Ain't Wrong Anymore."

Skinner said Cove and his supporters firmly believed that a good dictionary must be descriptive, not prescriptive. After the release, they found themselves pitted against critics who they felt were word snobs who wanted to use the dictionary as a tool for keeping antiquated class and culture ideas.

So after his massive research for his book, where does Skinner, who works with words daily, stand? He believes that the purpose of communicating is using the proper word to best convey the meaning intended.  "A dictionary is not a bouncer, keeping people outside the ropes. New circumstances call for new words," Skinner says. "But this doesn't mean anything goes. You still have to choose."

As is clearly evident, the 20th and 21st centuries have been on a steady trajectory toward greater informality. That is true in fashion. That is true in customs. That is true in entertainment and education. And that is also true with words and speech. "I am a child of my generation and I have a weakness for well used vulgarity," Skinner said.

And since language changes both so rapidly and so greatly over time, usage rules are also getting more difficult to enforce. For example, the split infinitive. Isn't if you say "to be easily written" or "to easily be written" more a matter of style and communicative intention than absolute rule? Part of the problem is, as writer H. L. Menken noted years ago, the more common a usage error becomes, the closer it comes to acceptance.

Skinner also noted that pronunciation plays into the linguistic culture wars. Take the word aunt, which most Americans pronounce as ant. "It's hard to hear someone say aunt as "auhnnt"  without hearing Thurston Howell the 3rd (an exceedingly rich, snooty character in the old TV show Gilligan's Island which was airing right around the time of the Webster's 3rd controversy)," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
So what of future dictionaries? Well, Skinner believes that the trend toward increasing informality and ease of use will continue. Right now, the biggest call for English dictionaries is as basic texts for ESL (English as a Second Language). In an earlier edition of Webster's, there were 25 different ways to pronounce the word lingerie. "Today, with the ESL and the school markets, you don't need 25 ways to pronounce lingerie, you need 1 way to pronounce lingerie," Skinner said.

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