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How Webster’s Screwed Up

How an editor who hated the word “radical,” became a radical.
 

By
David Skinner, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #348

One Bad Press Release

Webster’s Third tended to sound like a scientist on many issues where dictionary users were hoping to find a tough uncle. Its bad reputation was born after a press release announced that the new dictionary said ain’t was “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by cultivated speakers.” The press release left out that the dictionary had also said ain’t was “disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech.” But we can also see here how a label saying colloquial or informal would have come in handy.   Ain’t was well-established as a folksy, uncultivated usage, even when used by cultivated people pretending for a moment to be country bumpkins. That Webster’s Third didn’t have a way of saying so clearly was a mark against Gove, who had personally written the definition and usage note.

Usage labels should be taken with a grain of salt. They range from silly and obvious to thoughtful and helpful. Just as important, their absence is never a license to use any word carelessly. Many situations, especially professional ones, call for caution and moderation in our choice of words, though occasionally you may want to let some air in the room with a brief injection of casual speech. Ain’t that so?

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