Webster’s Third: A Look Back

Published almost fifty years ago, few remember the furor that Merriam Webster’s Third New International Dictionary made when it hit the scene in 1961. Unabashedly descriptivist, it was openly mocked and considered too permissive. The editors were even referred to as saboteurs. People can get very protective of their language.

David Skinner has an excellent article in the current issue of Humanities magazine that outlines the history of Webster’s Third and the controversy that followed its publication.

What did editor Philip Gove and his colleagues do to generate such controversy? The included non-standard words like ain’t. They included profanity. They gave multiple pronunciations and spellings for words. They avoided making pronouncements on “proper” usage. They reduced the plethora of usage labels, such as improper, jocular, and poetic, to just five: slang, nonstandard, substandard, obsolete, and archaic. They removed entries for obsolete words and proper names that had appeared in the second edition to make room for more general words (some 250,000 entries were deleted). Their usage citations came from the likes of Art Linkletter, and not just from the Bible and Shakespeare.

Skinner’s article and the controversy over Webster’s Third is worth reviewing. It illustrates how the intentions of lexicographers and the uses the public put to dictionaries can be in conflict. And it gives insight into how lexicographers make their editorial choices.

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