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"The Story of Ain't"

Prescriptive or descriptive? A new book looks at one of the most controversial American dictionaries ever published. David Skinner joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to talk about his book, and the one word at the center of this war on words -- "ain't." Skinner chronicles the uproar the dictionary sparked with its evolutionary style, and how the new language rules reflected the cultural transformation taking place in the United States. Read an excerpt from The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.

Chapter 1

They say it is better to pronounce aunt like art. That it’s sometimes okay to split your infinitives to, you know, avoid ambiguity. But okay is strictly colloquial. Snide is always slang, and alright is in wide use but not considered polite. Dirty words they never use or acknowledge.

And ain’t they say is dialectal, illiterate.

Who are they? Their names change from one era to the next, but just now they were the Editorial Board of the G. & C. Merriam Company, and they were at the Hotel Kimball in Springfield, Massachusetts, attending a dinner to celebrate the publication of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged.

It was June 25, 1934, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupied the White House, but few Americans knew their president was bound to a wheelchair. In Hollywood, the actress Mae West was trying to make her film It Ain’t No Sin, which after the censors were done with it was called Belle of the Nineties. A federal court had recently ruled it was legal to sell copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the United States. For more than a dozen years the novel had been banned due to its earthy vernacular and lewd material, beginning with a scene involving masturbation, which Webster’s Second defined with a good whiff of Sunday school as “onanism; self-pollution.”

Editor in chief William Allan Neilson, a short, bald man with a white mustache and a neat triangular beard, called the room to order. Standing confidently before an oil portrait of Noah Webster, he held a ceremonial gavel that had just been given to him as a gift from his employer. It was fashioned from applewood grown in West Hartford, Connecticut, Webster’s birthplace.

The ballroom had been transformed for supper. It was elegantly strewn with roses and crowded with men in dinner jackets. The menu consisted of consomme vermicelli, breast of chicken with bacon and cream sauce, and then, in the French manner, a salad. History did not record if any libations were served. Prohibition had ended a year earlier, but the very idea of drunkenness was still so vulgar that Webster’s Second followed polite tradition and denied that Americans even used drunk as the past perfect for drink.

Neilson was a practiced public speaker and knew what was expected of him. To introduce Merriam’s president, Asa Baker, he used the most flattering language possible under the circumstances. President Baker, he said, was a “dictionary man.” He was raised in a “dictionary atmosphere” and possessed a “dictionary sense.” His solid judgment had affected every aspect of their new unabridged dictionary, even as Baker also bore responsibility for the firm’s finances.

Baker then stood, tall, bespectacled, and nervous-looking. He firmly believed that a dictionary should evince a literary quality, and that the writers it quoted should be literary figures, not humble men like himself. He said only a few words, but used one of his favorites to describe Webster’s Second. It was a “universal” work, he said, meaning it covered all realms of knowledge and provided answers to almost all questions.

--From the book THE STORY OF AIN’T: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner. Copyright © 2012 by David Skinner. Reprinted courtesy of Harpers, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.