David Skinner’s interest in lexicography began when he was a staff editor at The Weekly Standard, which led him to recount and examine the controversial and highly contested Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. During his Bradley Lecture at AEI on Monday evening, Skinner argued that no other 20th century publication took “correctness” and turned it on its head like the third edition. According to Skinner, the debate over Webster’s Third caused a rift in the literary community over the use of one little four-letter word: ain’t.
However controversial the inclusion of “ain’t” might have been, Skinner argued that it really was not as big of a deal as critics made it out to be, because according to the five principles of language set down by National English Teachers Council, “spoken language is the language.” Skinner then quoted the late English language scholar Charles Carpenter Fries to highlight the fact that common usage shapes language.
Skinner concluded his lecture by underscoring the ever-increasing role of science in American lives, emphasizing that Webster’s Third reflected this shift in society, in which words such as “A-bomb” became a part of the lexicon. Skinner ultimately encouraged the audience to “just sit back and enjoy the fireworks” of language controversy.
David Skinner’s new nonfiction history “The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published” will depict the controversy of Webster’s Third, the so-called permissive dictionary that was denounced by everyone from The New York Times to Dwight Macdonald to the American Bar Association. The dictionary’s agnostic positions on disputed usages and its failure to address increasing informality in English were influenced by the lessons of linguistics.
Skinner’s book will trace historical factors that contributed to America’s shifting sense of linguistic correctness, and it will explore the fact that, as mid-twentieth century English became more technical and less formal, Americans were faced with myriad conflicting choices over how to use language and express one’s thoughts — challenges that remain today. Join Skinner as he discusses what to make of the controversy, the historical value of dictionaries and whether it is okay to boldly split an infinitive.
If you cannot attend, we welcome you to watch the event live on this page. Full video will be posted within 24 hours.
Arthur C. Brooks, AEI
David Skinner, Author, “The Story of Ain’t” (HarperCollins, October 2012); Writer and Former Staff Editor, The Weekly Standard; Editor, Humanities magazine; Usage Panel Member, American Heritage Dictionary
Adjournment and Reception
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Arthur C. Brooks has been the president of AEI since January 1, 2009. Previously, he was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University. He is the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from the economics of the arts to military operations research. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise” (Basic Books, 2012). Other books include “The Battle” (Basic Books, May 2010), “Gross National Happiness” (Basic Books, 2008), “Social Entrepreneurship” (Prentice-Hall, 2008), and “Who Really Cares” (Basic Books, 2006). Before pursuing his work in public policy, Brooks spent 12 years as a professional French hornist with the City Orchestra of Barcelona and other ensembles.
David Skinner is the author of “The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever” (Harper), due out October 9. He is the editor of Humanities magazine and a former staff editor at The Weekly Standard, for which he still writes casuals and cultural essays. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, Slate, Salon, American Spectator, the Public Interest, the New Atlantis, Boston Magazine, Philanthropy Roundtable, and Education Next, among others.