August 15, 2022

A famous, controversial book. Only $2!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 1 photo

(Warning! This contains dirty words.  Words I’ve never used in print before. Words I’ve never, never used in my speaking.  You may blush. Feel  free to opt out.)

Morro Bay, Calif. –I’m in our Public Library and I spot it on special display. Wow! I go right to it for a good look.

Like all libraries, ours has a section with used books for sale. Most go for $1.But this one is twice that much. Yes, $2. Because it’s such a hefty book, I’ll bet.

It’s the Merriam-Webster Third New International, published in 1961. Merriam-Webster is our biggest and most well-known dictionary publisher to this day.

Head librarian Mary with the great big Merriam-Webster “Third New” and the book about that red-hot edition of the dictionary by David Skinner. The little circle at top right says $2.

I know a lot about this dictionary. It is the granddaddy of edition after edition of dictionaries that Merriam-Webster puts out.  Smaller versions, abridged so-called, like my M-W Collegiate, enormously popular. I keep one by my lounge chair. Another by the computer I do all my writing at.

The Third New, as it has come to be called, was greeted with lot of kudos and acclaims, but also with loud complaints and denunciations. National newspapers, influential magazines, prestigious publishing houses, prominent intellectuals weighed in on it.

I witnessed all that.  After reading much about it, I myself approved the Third New. And know what? I got involved as a journalist, and quite an experience it turned out to be. It’s  still vivid in my memory of the so many stories I got to cover.

Looking down on the big book now, I’m so excited that I ask Mary to come see. She’s our head librarian.  She’s nearby working the check-out desk.

“Know anything about this dictionary, Mary?”

She looks it over. Takes a minute or two. “Well, it’s a biggie. And it’s a Merriam-Webster. That means a lot. But pretty old. I have no idea who donated it to us.”

“This book came out in 1961. Got huge publicity. The reaction to it was sensational,” I tell her, tapping it. “In fact, revolutionary. Because there was a different philosophy behind it.  There had never been a dictionary like this before.”


“Here, let me show you something.” I flip it open and start searching.

It’s so heavy. Has hundreds and  hundreds of pages.  Very unwieldy. Needs to have its own table to rest on.The typeface used is tiny—8 point, it looks like. The definitions are long. Each page is crammed shoehorn full. Finally I find the word I’m looking for. I point to it for her. The word is “ain’t.”

She stares at it. I can read her mind. She’s thinking, “It’s one of a million words in here. So what’s the big deal?”

“Mary, this is the very first time that little word ‘ain’t’ got into any dictionary. Which is true of many, many other everyday words we all use. For the first time they got put in a dictionary. That was a big reason behind all the arguing.

“What a ruckus it created. Some people loved it. Some people hollered and vowed they’d continue with M-W’s previous biggie. That was the Second New International Dictionary, also huge, published in 1934. The country, Americans, the culture had changed so much in those 25 years.”

She tapped my arm. “Sorry, John, got to go. A lady wants me to check out her books,”

Well, I didn’t buy this Third New, in fine condition though it was.  Had no need for it. Besides, no place for it, so big.

I get by just fine with my M-W Collegiate.  And when I’m typing away on my computer and I wonder about a word, often I just look it up on M-W’s online dictionary. It’s easy.

I went home. But I didn’t stop thinking about the Third New. I went back the next day.  I was worried that somebody might have handed Mary the 2 bucks or it. Not that I had changed my mind. I had a different reason. It was still there.  Good!

I got Mary again. Asked her how much she thought it weighed. She tried to heft it. “Oh, maybe 15 pounds.”  Which is what I thought it weighed, too.  I had brought my step-on bathroom scale along. I set on the counter. Her eyes opened wide. She thought I was crazy, I’m sure. I hefted the book and placed it on the scale. Just 2 ounces short of 6 pounds. But it sure felt like 15 pounds.

Then, with Mary still watching, I checked how many pages. 2,662! There were zillions of words listed, and their definitions were long. Then I looked at a few pages.  They were jammed full, with everything in tiny type, 8 point, I thought. So hard to read. Should have brought my magnifying glass, too.

I said to her, “Here’s why this dictionary became so controversial. The Merriam Second New—the big one before this one—put in all the words that the editor-in-chief felt should be in the book. Only good words, in his opinion. If a word was recognized popular but was slangy or uncouth or uncultured and therefore second-class, well, to him—“ain’t’ for instance—it was kept out. A huge list of words that were a vital part of our language never got in.

“This one, “I said, tapping it, “put in word after word that everybody knew and used all the time. Including some naughty words, even some dirty words.  Words that were on just about everybody’s tongue. For the simple reason they made the job of speaking with people so much easier. Thousands of new words got included.”

Besides my bathroom scale I had brought along a book of my own. I showed it to her. Its title was “The Story of Ain’t.” And its subhead was “America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.” By David Skinner, a bog-time journalist and author, highly respected.

He laid out the whole incredible, fascinating story of the Third New. And of its its editor-and-chief, who inspired the new thinking. And all the heated words and arguments that rolled out pro and con.

Mary flipped through my book, stopping here and there, then turned back to look at the check-out counter. then said  “Quite a story, John! But….” Another customer was waiting for her.

I wouldn’t be surprised if later she brought all this to the attention of her librarians. Also because of my own little role in all that, which I had told her about. I’ll tell you about it in a minute.

Well, how come the Merriam Third New was so radically different from the Merriam Second New?

Primarily because the new top man was Philip Babcock Gove, Ph.D. He saw the huge changes  that our country and culture, and as a result, our language, were going through. Believed that a dictionary shouldn’t preach. Believed it should just record the words  and define them if lots of people use them. That if was important.

To determine that, the lexicographers studied usage in books, publications of kinds, movies, menus, songs,  advertisements, scientific and technical publications. A file was kept of every word, and the file contained many “citations.” These were white index cards that showed exactly how a word was used, where, and its exact context.  New meanings to it, old meanings falling out of style.

These files got reviewed periodically, and if something new about the word was developing or something old was fading out, that would have to be noted in a modified definition of that word.

He recognized that language is dynamic. Constantly changing. Which is normal. Any user of the Third New would get to see that.

I should tell you that Merriam-Webster had a large staff of lexicographers. Trained and seasoned professionals. It takes a huge effort to produce a dictionary of this magnitude.  A big staff. Dr. Gove had to win them over and get them roused up.

Incredible the discussions that resulted.  So many new words had to be reviewed. “Ain’t” is the one that became famous, or notorious, depending on your point of view.

Most words have several definitions, of course.  The conventional one for “ain’t” is that it is a word used by un-schooled people. But a new one was developing fast. The word was being used to give emphasis and drama, and by sophisticated people. Such as, “Dammit, that just ain’t so!”  I’ve used it in print a few times in that way for that very reason.

There developed a long list of  common words and expressions that got Dr. Gove’s team talking about–Chinaman, faggot, french-fried (potatoes), nigger, prick, cunt, tits, Jap, bum, snot, masturbation (as opposed to Onanism), GI, Jewess, chop suey, pizza, Nazi, shit, tofu, transatlantic flight, high-octane gas, pisspoor and pissed off, on and on. Many were put on a “taboo” list. Others got cleared for publication.

And thousands of words in the  Second New had to be deleted because research had shown they were falling off.

Gove insisted on using some. “Fuck” was one.  “Fuck up” was another.  “Cunt.” “Period,” meaning a woman’s you know what.   Everybody knows them. Millions  use them. But he didn’t get his way on many. Yes, Gove was the editor-in-chief. But Gordon J. Gallan was the publisher of Merriam-Webster.  Sharp executive and businessman. He wanted excellence, but also big sales.  He worried about sales of this Third New. So he sent down a memo, saying about some of those, so to speak,  “No way! Nothing doing!” (Both expressions with specific new meanings, as we have gotten to learn.)

For your information, the first time “fuck,” as a noun and a verb, made it into a general dictionary was in 1964 when the American Heritage Dictionary included it. The AHD has grown into a worthy competitor to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate.

So what was my role?  I was a feature writer on the magazine of the Telegram in Worcester, Mass.  I was always prospecting for a good story. I saw this incredible ruckus.

Merriam-Webster’s headquarters were, and still are, in Springfield, another big city, just 50 miles to the west.  I put in a call, made my pitch, was invited to come,  got a fascinating  tour by a staff editor on how a dictionary is put together, and interviewed the big man himself, Dr. Gove.

I decided my big focus should be on him. What kind of man was this? I came back later with a photographer to double-check my facts and take pictures. This was going to be a big lay-out in the magazine. At the end of the day we followed Dr. Gove to his home. He lived in a little town 15 miles east and he had a farm. He introduced us to Mrs. Gove, Grace, I believe, and his kids.

Incredible! Every night the great scholar would swap his business suit and dressy shoes for bib overalls and mucky boots and stride out back to the barn to milk his cows. My photographer that day, Bob Lilyestrom I believe it was, caught him doing just that and happy at his work.  Who could ever imagine an incredible character like that?

Oh, on my next visit to our public library I checked. The Third New was gone. I asked Mary who had bought it. “No idea, John.”

Gosh, I’d like to meet that person! There’s another great story there, I’m sure. That would be a wonderful interview, too.

Now truth is, I have written about Dr. Gove and his Third New before as a blog. Some of you probably received that piece.

If you feel you’d enjoy it, send me an email at either johnguylaplante @yahoo or gmail. And I’ll send it to you. Lots of interesting stuff in it.

You’re all sophisticated readers, I’m positive.  Who else would read something like this? Let me know if you’ve  gotten around to using “ain’t,” will you?

(Oh, by the way, I’ve just re-read this, checking for typos. These days I always seem to make typos–blame bad typing by my tired old fingers. Didn’t spot any. But was struck by the many words and expressions that I’ve used that I never would have employed in that article of mine for the Telegram back n 1961. I didn’t know them!  There are dozens. See how many you can spot.  Shows how dynamic language is!)

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