The Atlantic

The Draconian Dictionary Is Back

Since the 1960s, the reference book has cataloged how people actually use language, not how they should. That might be changing. An Object Lesson.
Source: Adam Butler / AP

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

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