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AN END TO DICTIONARY-BASHING OR JUST A LULL? (ON SOME PUBLISHED REACTIONS TO WEBSTER'S NINTH NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY) DAVID L. GOLD After the row over Webster's Third (Gold, "Debate") it was not clear whether English dictionaries produced in the United States would for the forseeable future become the permanent targets of people whom one could objectively call "linguistically conservative" or, less dispassionately, "guardians of the purity of the mother tongue." If we may judge from a few published reactions to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, an era of dictionary-bashing has NOT begun, but that may be because this dictionary (hereinafter MW9) is smaller, hence less conspicuous, than Webster's Third New International Dictionary (hereinafter NIDi) or because the compilers of MW9 have corrected some of the errors in NIDi or because today there are fewer vociferous linguistic conservatives. Let us be optimistic and think that all three reasons are correct. Thus, for example, the usage note for ain't in MW9 seems to me to be -better than the one in NIDi (cf. Gold, "Debate" 228). In the latter it was "though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S.A. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain't I" (for sense 1) and "substandard" (for sense 2). MW9 has "although disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, ain't is used orally in most parts of the U.S. Its use by educated people is in sense 1 esp. orally in the phrase ain't I. At all levels of education it is used deliberately to catch attention or for emphasis both in speech . . . and in writing . . . and is found frequently in a few fixed phrases and constructions. ... It is also used for metrical reasons in popular songs ..." (my suspension points replace examples). MW9 thus recognizes that in certain circumstances educated people use ain't (to catch attention, for emphasis, and in few set phrases and constructions), that is, merely as a quoted 81 82 Reactions to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate substandardism. Indeed, the category of quoted substandardisms should be recognized in lexicography. It is found not only in English. Spanish, for example, has the lexemes peor es meneallo, peor es hurgallo (synonymous with the preceding one), and al amigo y al caballo, no apretallo, all three of which contain substandard forms (meneallo, hurgallo, and apretallo), yet they are accepted in the standard language as they are, and any tampering with them ("peor es menearlo," etc.) would be considered incorrect. Getting back to ain't, I am still bothered by the statement that even educated people use ain't. That may be true for certain varieties of British English, but not for most of contemporary American English. McDavid wrote that "ain't for am not occurs freely in the intimate conversation of many of the old huntin' and shootin' families in England and their opposite numbers in such faded Sybarises as Charleston, S.C. In fact, a stranger in Charleston knows he is on his way to being accepted when scions of the old families drop their guard and say ain't in his presence" (Mencken 540), but is this switch of style not evidence that even the Charleston families feel uncomfortable with the word? Although the controversy over finalize has died down (passions flared after President Dwight D. Eisenhower used it at news conferences), MW9's compilers still felt the need in 1 983 to add a usage note, as if to anticipate possible criticism. For younger users of English today, to whom it appears to be just another word, one has to explain that in the 1950s and 1960s it was shibbolethic, just as the verb contact was in the 1920s and 1930s (only a few older people remember that controversy today). MW9 helps to keep memory of that row alive: "A few stalwart defenders of the language still object to the use of contact as a verb, esp. in sense 2b. But most commentators concede that it has become established as standard" (perhaps deliberately, but is used here sentenceinitially ; some handbooks of usage forbid...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 81-92
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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