Watch Your Language

“Why would anybody buy that? It’s outdated.”

I hear that all the time: it’s inevitable. After all, that was the rationale when the British Museum got rid of its First Folio of Shakespeare. A new Folio edition had come out without all the errors and typos of the First Folio, so…. And have you heard the one about the library that threw away each edition of Paris Review Interviews whenever a new one came in? (Each “series” has a different set of interviews completely; they don’t really represent updates.)

But I did once have an argument with a customer who wanted to know why Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language costs about ten times as much for the second edition as for the third edition.

“Because they’re not printing the second since the third came out,” I said.

“But the third edition is the NEW one,” I was told.

It gets rather involved, really. Webster’s Second, or W2, came out in 1934, a volume of authority and dord. It remained the standard until it was completely redone for a new edition in 1969, Webster’s Third, or W3. The editor did drastic things to the book, cutting out a lot of proper names (you had to buy Webster’s Biographical Dictionary or Webster’s Geographical Dictionary for those) and a lot of the color plates. The new book was supposed to be limited to words, words, words.

And it was planned to be completely descriptive of the American language. Webster’s Second had continued a tradition of being prescriptive: telling you which words were considered less than standard. (That old line about “Ya ain’t supposed ta say ain’t, cause ain’t ain’t in the dictionary”. It WAS in the dictionary, but clearly stamped with warning labels.)

The uproar was immediate: the word cops objected, and several institutions announced they would be retaining Webster’s Second, as it was clearly an authority whereas Webster’s Third was merely a journalistic exercise. The publishers stood their ground: the dictionary’s job was to define words as used, not tell people which ones they OUGHT to use.

One result was that prices on Webster’s Second started to rise. Unabridged dictionaries are very susceptible to damage, and people who needed to replace one that was worn out had to go to used book dealers. Another result was the creation of the American Heritage Dictionary, to restore the sense of authority the “permissiveness” of Webster’s Third had thrown away. It was a noble undertaking.

Unfortunately, the American Heritage Dictionary, also trying to cover American lingo, also found itself being screamed at by critics. The editorial staff had decided to fix up some oversights in previous dictionaries. Words like “bed” had definitions which were previously ignored. The word “bed” could be a verb or a location in situations where no bed was actually involved. (To put it no plainer.)

“If I want my child to learn words like that,” said one critic, “I want him to learn them where I did: in the streets and in the gutter.” The American Heritage Dictionary was the most challenged book in school and public libraries in the mid-seventies.

The lesson of all this could be that you can’t win with dictionaries. But that would be untrue. Nowadays, to cover all bases, you really need a Webster’s Second, a Webster’s Third, AND an American Heritage. So those of us selling them win after all.

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