One of the sections I was most anticipating in The Oxford History of English Lexicography (previous posts: 1, 2) was the discussion of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, one of the greatest and most controversial landmarks of American lexicography, and one that came along when I was old enough to be able to use and appreciate dictionaries. I was not disappointed.
The first surprise came right away. I had known the dictionary’s main editor, and the recipient of the brickbats, was Philip Babcock Gove; I hadn’t known that “the publishers originally sought to [appoint a "distinguished academic person"] for the Third Edition, but, although they received valuable help in planning for the new dictionary from prominent academic people, none was willing to assume the editorship, and in the end the publishers turned to an in-house editor, Philip Babcock Gove… Gove was appointed general editor in 1951; no one was appointed editor-in-chief until ten years later, the year of publication, when Gove was officially given that title. Webster’s Third is very much Gove’s dictionary… His was the major voice in determining what entries to include and what to omit; the style of definitions; the attention paid to pronunciation; the use of illustrative quotations, usage labels, and subject labels; and many other decisions which would provoke strong criticism in the years following publication.” Sidney I. Landau, the author of the chapter, describes the environment in which the book appeared, “just at the time when linguists and humanists in universities were most at odds”; Gove was clearly aware of the discoveries of linguistics (he listed basic principles such as that language changes constantly, change is normal, spoken language is the language, and correctness rests on usage), and his personality was such that he “hated to make exceptions, even when the failure to do so created the occasional absurdity, ambiguity, or obfuscation.” With that background, we proceed to the detailed discussion of what were perceived as problems:
For example, Webster’s Third most remarkably capitalizes no entries except God. Up until the first New International of 1909, all entries were capitalized in Webster dictionaries. Webster’s Third professed to contain no encyclopedic entries, and so theoretically would have no need to capitalize anything, but in fact it contains many entries derived from names (such as new yorker), and many names of materials (african teak), flora and fauna (japanese cedar, russian wolfhound), and other entries having geographical or biographical elements (swedish massage, einstein equation). All of these entries include some italicized usage label signifying that the entry is usually or always capitalized, but it remains a puzzle why the editors did not simply capitalize them. The answer may be in Gove’s acceptance of the primacy of the spoken language… The failure to capitalize has been criticized almost universally, even by those with generally positive views of the dictionary….
The colloquial or informal label was dropped completely, and slang is used very sparingly. In America, an informal style of language had become all but universal by the 1950s… There was also the question of the class of people to whom a particular usage was informal. Earlier unabridged dictionaries were addressed to a somewhat restricted, educated class… There is less justification for the sharp reduction in the use of slang label. The Explanatory Notes contain this confusing comment: “No word is invariably slang, and many standard words can be given slang connotations or used so inappropriately as to become slang.” [Note the undescriptive "inappropriately"! —LH] The possibility of limitless variation is no warrant for the failure to label words as slang.
Apart from all of these changes, the new defining style of the Third set it apart most dramatically… The style avoids commas except to separate items in a series, proscribes semicolons entirely, and relies on a single unbroken description with embedded phrases and clauses following directly upon each part of the definition they modify (very like the second half of this sentence)…. By and large, the new defining style works well, but it takes some getting used to, and sometimes it sacrifices clarity for economy of expression. It is not necessarily more logical than more traditional methods of defining, but Gove evidently admired its straightforward linear drive, like a car in smooth acceleration.
“Like a car in smooth acceleration”! You don’t often see comparisons like that in scholarly tomes.
After praising the detailed pronunciations and revamped etymologies, Landau proceeds to a brilliant “assessment of Webster’s Third“:
Although Gove asserts near the beginning of his preface that the dictionary is not just for the scholar or professional but for the general user without any advanced preparation, the style… does not support such a claim…. In many respects Webster’s Third is a great dictionary, but it is not user-friendly.
Gove placed too much reliance on definitions to provide context of subject, and too much reliance on illustrative quotations to provide guidance for level of usage. The virtual absence of subject labels and the begrudgingly rare use of slang are defects, as is the absurd absence of capital letters in words that are invariably capitalized…. [I]t was mainly Gove’s lack of empathy with the user—perhaps also his lack of sympathy with the user—that made him so inflexible in applying his sets of criteria governing the presentation of his dictionary. The policies Gove promulgated and saw through seemed designed to improve the art of lexicography rather than to produce a fine commercial dictionary. That they did both, in spite of some of the lapses of Webster’s Third, is a testament to the quality of the Merriam staff and to Gove’s integrity and assiduity as a lexicographer.
I find it hard to imagine a fairer summary than that, doing full justice to the greatness of the dictionary (which I am proud to own, and which of course is a rival to Oxford’s many dictionaries) while fully acknowledging the justice of some of the criticisms.