• Last updated on November 10, 2022

Publication of a new edition of Webster’s dictionary was received with protests from purists, who thought that the Merriam-Webster Company had betrayed linguistic standards by recording and validating the actual speech of Americans.

Summary of Event

In October, 1961, the G. & C. Merriam Company G. & C. Merriam Company[G. and C. Merriam Company] published its Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, a direct descendant of Noah Webster’s famous An American Dictionary of the English Language American Dictionary of the English Language, An (Webster) of 1828. Production of Webster’s Third cost more than 3.5 million dollars, about three times the amount of its predecessor, Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (1934); it was based on more than ten million citations, and it included among its more than 450,000 main entries 100,000 new words or meanings not found in previous editions. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary[Websters Third New International Dictionary] Dictionaries Linguistics [kw]We bsters Third New International Dictionary (Oct., 1961)[Webster’s Third New International Dictionary] [kw]Third New International Dictionary, Webster’s (Oct., 1961) Webster’s Third New International Dictionary[Websters Third New International Dictionary] Dictionaries Linguistics [g]Nort h America;Oct., 1961: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary[07060] [g]United States;Oct., 1961: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary[07060] [c]Language, linguistics, and philology;Oct., 1961: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary[07060] Gove, Philip B. Macdonald, Dwight Follett, Wilson Sledd, James Pei, Mario A. Kilburn, Patrick E.

Other features included 200,000 usage examples, three thousand black-and-white illustrations, one thousand synonym articles clarifying five thousand often-confused words, rich etymologies, careful distinctions in pronunciation by region and by level of formality, fifty tables of special information, and sections explaining punctuation conventions and forms of address. The dictionary, however, contained 150,000 fewer entries than had a 1959 revision of the 1934 work, and it took up nearly five hundred fewer pages. Webster’s Third weighed thirteen and one-half pounds and cost $47.50.

Such a detailed and comprehensive work of scholarship would probably strike most people as exemplary, but writers and editors screamed their outrage at once. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Life magazine, and many other magazines and newspapers condemned the new dictionary and indignantly proclaimed their allegiance to its predecessor, in which they thought more rigorous standards still guided the serious dictionary user.

The reasons for this mass protest from the American press lie in human psychology and can be traced to popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of the nature of language and to the expectations people nurture of dictionaries. As far back as the seventeenth century, English men of letters such as John Dryden had hoped to arrest change in the English language. In the eighteenth century, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift had envisioned an English academy as the proper institution to slow corruption of the language.

Samuel Johnson Johnson, Samuel sympathized with this conservative viewpoint but opposed the idea of an academy, and as he worked on his A Dictionary of the English Language Dictionary of the English Language, A (Johnson) (1755), he came to realize that the ideal of stability in a language was unrealistic. Even so, Johnson hoped that his dictionary would work against the eventual decay of the tongue, and he thus became a powerful force behind the philosophy that saw the lexicographer as an arbiter of standards in usage and spelling.

In America, John Adams, the second president of the United States, proposed an American academy in 1780, a goal taken up by Noah Webster Webster, Noah and others in 1788 when they formed a philological society in New York. The proposal was criticized by, among others, the dramatist Royall Tyler, and the society soon expired. The urge to regularize lived on, but it became entangled with nationalistic spirit. Whereas some Anglophiles (the philologist John Pickering, for example) wanted to fix American English in the forms of cultivated British speech, Webster identified language usage with patriotism, and his view soon dominated practice.

Although Webster had originally considered recent changes in the language to be a falling off from Elizabethan perfection, he soon realized that it was too late to preserve the language of a bygone age. He thus aimed for a distinctly American speech that would offer a national standard and unify its peoples. In spelling, for example, he wanted words such as favour and colour to lose their u’s, theatre and centre to become theater and center, and musick and publick to drop their k’s. Other innovations, strictly phonetic, such as thum for thumb and lether for leather, failed to stick.

Webster’s great An American Dictionary of the English Language was the most important work in lexicography since Johnson’s dictionary seventy-three years earlier, and he hoped it would help guide the language back to correctness. The whole issue of authoritarianism in language broke out anew, however, in mid-century with the 1830 publication by Joseph E. Worcester Worcester, Joseph E. of his Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language. Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language (Worcester) Worcester was closer to British forms, and his work attracted support from Anglophiles and Boston Brahmins who had never been fully won by Webster’s American spirit. With the publication of a revised, clearly superior edition of Webster’s work in 1864, though, the dispute faded into history.

A long history thus lay behind the uproar caused by Webster’s Third, which had a genealogy extending back to Noah Webster himself. The G. & C. Merriam Company had bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary when he died in 1843 and had produced more than a century of revisions. When it was published in 1961, therefore, Webster’s Third was merely the latest battle in a long campaign fought between linguistic prescriptivists and descriptivists.


Serious, detailed criticism of the new work began with Wilson Follett’s attack in The Atlantic Monthly in January, 1962. According to Follett, Webster’s Third was “a very great calamity,” a hodgepodge of “the questionable, the perverse, the unworthy, and the downright outrageous.” In addition to lamenting that such facts as the names of the apostles were not to be found in Webster’s Third, Follett inveighed against “the extreme tolerance of crude neologisms and of shabby diction generally” and protested the book’s condoning of such usages as due to as an adverb, center around, different than, and other solecisms. Follett’s peroration envisioned a domino effect of uninformed language use leading to “the really enormous disaster that can and will be wrought by the lexicographer’s abandonment of his responsibility.”

Dwight Macdonald’s long, well-reasoned, and well-written piece in The New Yorker of March 10, 1962, was much more perceptive and difficult to defend against. Macdonald shared the common suspicion of Webster’s Third’s attitude toward usage questions, but he mounted a far subtler attack on what he considered the philosophical underpinnings of the work. Macdonald referred specifically to the school of language study known as structural linguistics Structuralism and pointed to its basic precepts as outlined by Philip B. Gove, the chief editor of Webster’s Third: Language changes constantly; change is normal; spoken language is the language; correctness rests on usage; and all usage is relative. Such a vision of the nature of language, Macdonald argued, had engendered Gove’s mistaken conception of a dictionary as “a recording instrument rather than as an authority.” Macdonald viewed Gove’s scholarship as part of the barren enterprise of modern science.

With this fundamental critique established, Macdonald revealed that he had spent considerable time reading Webster’s Third. Although much of his discussion offered only the good reviewer’s informative account of his subject, he also pointed out embarrassing inconsistencies (in the adjectival forms of proper names, for example) and absurdities in the tedious listing of words beginning with non- and un-. Macdonald’s essay was a stimulating exploration of the issues, but its main criticism was the same as Follett’s: that civilization was threatened by the barbarisms of the mob.

Among the more temperate reviewers, Mario A. Pei in The New York Times Book Review discovered some inconsistencies in Webster’s Third but commented that the book was “the closest we can get, in America, to the Voice of Authority.” The prestigious British science journal Nature was very pleased with Webster’s Third, but its American counterpart, Science, bemoaned an inadequate distinction between illiterate and literate usage. The American Bar Association Journal entitled its review “Logomachy: Debased Verbal Currency,” while the Law Times proclaimed that Gove’s confidence in the new work was “well founded.”

One of the best defenses of Webster’s Third came from Patrick E. Kilburn. Writing in the Union College Symposium, Kilburn described Follett’s purism as no longer respectable and charged Macdonald with “linguistic arrogance.” Kilburn was convincing, because his homework was excellent; for example, by comparing the usage judgments of six prominent dictionaries, he revealed a complete lack of consensus on the meanings and status of twenty-five questionable words. Kilburn accused Webster’s Third’s critics of not following their own preachments, and he struck a telling blow by quoting Ambrose Bierce’s Bierce, Ambrose definition of a dictionary as “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.”

When James Sledd and Wilma Ebbitt Ebbitt, Wilma edited Dictionaries and That Dictionary Dictionaries and That Dictionary (Sledd and Ebbitt, eds.) (1962), Sledd invited Macdonald to respond to Kilburn’s defense of Webster’s Third. Macdonald then raised three questions: Can a dictionary be nonprescriptive? What is the nature of change in language? and What kind of authority, if any, should attempt to direct and control change? Macdonald elaborated at length on his third question, and Kilburn and Sledd answered his questions in separate essays.

Sledd seethed with a sense of having been personally attacked, and his defense was feisty; he called Macdonald’s review “portentously bad” and “disgraced by just that sort of ignorance and unfairness which cheap journalism in a mass culture would substitute for scholarship.” After setting this personal tone, Sledd charged Macdonald with sloppiness with facts, ignorance of the nature of linguistic change, and a confused sense of what constitutes good English. Sledd closed with a spirited proposal: “The constructive critic of the Third International will be the man who shows how its descriptions can be improved.”

The great usage debate eventually subsided, and Webster’s Third earned a secure spot in many libraries, public and private. For the ordinary user, the most practical result of the controversy was perhaps the innovations it produced in subsequent dictionaries; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, now explains after its entry on infer that 92 percent of its judges do not accept “infer” as a synonym for “imply.” The reasonableness of such a solution seems inevitable. Although the universal hunger for a priori truths will no doubt keep the debate of usage questions alive, nothing will arrest change in a living language. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary[Websters Third New International Dictionary] Dictionaries Linguistics

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gove, Philip Babcock, ed. The Role of the Dictionary. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967. Designed for classroom use with questions and exercises, this collection of thirteen short essays generally supports Gove and the principles of Webster’s Third. The contributors include well-known language scholars such as Bergen Evans and Albert H. Marckwardt as well as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who writes entertainingly—and sensibly—on “The Latest Word.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Jack C., ed. Words, Words, and Words About Dictionaries. San Francisco: Chandler, 1963. A collection of twenty pieces discussing such topics as “Words and Meaning” and “Words over Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.” A good collection with well-designed materials for classroom use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hulbert, James Root. Dictionaries: British and American. London: Andre Deutsch, 1955. Although he sketches the history of English dictionaries, what Hulbert does best is spell out the steps involved in making a dictionary—from deciding on its scope to choosing such nonlexicographical features as tables of money and pronouncing gazetteers. He also describes The Oxford English Dictionary and others like it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kraske, Robert. The Story of the Dictionary. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. A short and very readable account for young people. Chapters on the first dictionary makers, on Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster and their dictionaries, on The Oxford English Dictionary, on the sources of the words in dictionaries, on the making of a modern dictionary, on dictionaries for young people, and on the living English language. Illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lodwig, Richard R., and Eugene F. Barrett. The Dictionary and the Language. New York: Hayden, 1967. An excellent survey. Separate chapters treat early dictionaries, the variety of modern dictionaries, the making of dictionaries (including “The W3 Controversy”), dictionary usage, the history of English, the processes of word creation, word meanings, and word changes. Exercises for classroom use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morton, Herbert C. The Story of “Webster’s Third”: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. One of the few book-length studies of the creation of and reaction to Webster’s Third. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sledd, James H., and Wilma R. Ebbitt, eds. Dictionaries and That Dictionary: A Casebook on the Aims of Lexicographers and the Targets of Reviewers. Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1962. The best source for students of the Webster’s Third controversy. Seven lexicographers speak for themselves in the first section. Part 2 is a rich collection of reviews, favorable and unfavorable, and responses. The book’s postscript includes a lively debate between Dwight Macdonald and Patrick Kilburn and James Sledd. Excellent teaching materials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, Ronald A. Dictionaries and the Authoritarian Tradition: A Study in English Usage and Lexicography. The Hague: Mouton, 1973. Scholarly but completely readable history of the prescriptive, as opposed to descriptive, view of dictionary editing. Informative chapters on the origins of English lexicography, the authoritarian tradition in both England and America, the war over Webster’s Third, and dictionaries and usage. Long and indispensable bibliography.

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