In 1961, what newly published book was denounced as “subversive and intolerably offensive”? Was it the new American edition of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller’s sexually explicit autobiographical novel? Nope. Although that book was called filthy, rotten, repulsive, and “an affront to human decency,” the correct answer is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.
It might be hard to understand how a dictionary could have been deemed “subversive.” Indeed, the source of the outrage—the inclusion of slang and nonstandard terms such as the word ain’t—seems unobjectionable today. In 2011, the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg wrote of the kerfuffle in The New York Times, “It’s a safe bet that no new dictionary will ever incite a similar uproar, whatever it contains. The dictionary simply doesn’t have the symbolic importance it did a half-century ago.”
That symbolic importance is summed up in the phrase Nunberg uses: “the dictionary,” a singular reference book for language. The idea of such a thing is fiction: Ever since the early days of dictionary making in England 400 years ago, there have been competing dictionaries—never a sole, eternal authority. “The dictionary” isn’t a real thing so much as a symbol for the idea of proper English.
This symbol has been particularly powerful in the United States. That may be because print dictionaries have embodied certain ideas about democracy and capitalism that seem especially American—specifically, the notion that “good” English can be packaged and sold, becoming accessible to anyone willing to work hard enough to learn it.
Massive social changes in the 1960s accompanied the appearance of Webster’s Third, and a new era arose for dictionaries: one in which describing how people use language became more important than showing them how to do so properly. But that era might finally be coming to an end, thanks to the internet, the decline of print dictionaries, and the political consequences of an anything-goes approach to language.