In “The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published,” David Skinner describes the hostile reaction that greeted the release of “Webster’s Third Edition” in 1961. The incident provides an excellent lesson for all of us, particularly church folk.
But first, the context.
Skinner’s book traces the development of dictionaries in this country and their struggles to determine what goes in and what stays out. Then it chronicles the work of G. and C. Merriam Company to produce a new kind of dictionary, one unlike all the others.
The editors had arrived at the interesting conclusion that no one had made them the authority over the English language. No one had put them in charge of English as spoken and written in America. In fact, they decided there is no authority.
This must have come as a shock to every teacher I ever had in elementary and high school. Invariably, they would fault students for some breach of the language and add, “Check the dictionary.” Yep, there it was, in black and white.
In the fifth grade, I was “set down” in a spelling bee because of “mama.” I knew perfectly well how to spell that word because my mama spelled it that way when she wrote to her mama on the Alabama farm. But the dictionary spelled it “mamma,” and that was good enough for Mrs. Meadows, our teacher.
Who would dare argue with a dictionary? If it’s there, it’s official, right?
These days, I’m finally experienced enough to want to say to the teacher, “Oh yeah? Who said? And who made them the authority?”
Smiley-face here, please. I’m not upset, just making a point.
When Webster’s Third Edition was released, words like “ain’t” and other frowned-upon slang words were included. Many were upset because the definition did not flag “ain’t” as unacceptable, something spoken only by the uneducated and uncouth.
It simply noted that “ain’t” was “not standard.”
“Editorializing has no place in definitions,” said an internal memo at Merriam’s. This Third Edition would contain no more snide putdowns of certain words as “colloquial among the uneducated and unsophisticated.” “Illiterate.” “Unacceptable in normal circumstances.”
And that bothered the fire out of a lot of people.
If there is no authority to say what’s right in language and what’s wrong, what are we to do? (I hope you’re smiling.)
The management of G. and C. Merriam, owners of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries, pointed out five important facts about our language:
1. Language changes constantly. It is forever transitioning, dropping off some words as obsolete, tweaking the definition of others, and inventing new words.
2. Change is normal. Every language of every civilization is a movable thing; none is static.
3. Spoken language is the language. No longer should written language be the official language and spoken language be considered second class.
4. Correctness rests upon usage. The context is everything.
5. All usage is relative. “It depends” is an iron-clad rule.
Well! The nation went ballistic when the Third Edition was released in 1961. Editorials in magazines and newspapers bemoaned the death of language in America.
Some editors listed slang-words found in the Third (jazz, crazy, hot, dig, beef up, etc.) and wrote whole paragraphs using them. “Ain’t ain’t wrong any more,” headlines announced. And that just would not do.
It turned out that almost every one of the slang words editors took exception to in the Third Edition could be found in the Second Edition which they were sanctifying as the divine standard of English usage. The naysayers who were rejecting the Third in favor of the Second had not even bothered to check the Second to see if the words had been listed there.
As a preacher, I find the whole business so revealing. Ministers are so much this way. We are notorious for condemning books we have not read, movies we have not viewed, and positions we have not studied but have heard other people condemning.
In sermons, it is practically a Mosaic law that we can say anything we wish so long as it’s a quote. Any unusual position we take on a doctrine or text should have a reference to back it up. So long as we can cite someone else as the authority for the position, we’re safe.
After the release of Webster’s Third, never again would a dictionary be allowed to serve as the supreme court of the language. The die was cast, the gate was unlocked. No more would we be able to pen that flock again.
It seems to be a human thing. We need an authority, don’t we?
Without an authority–someone to say this is the standard–how do we teach English usage and proper writing? How does a teacher mark a paper, red-circling some words as unacceptable and blue-lining others as great?
When do we use like and when do we use as? How about the difference in will and shall? And who will decide?
When I was coming along in school, you said something is different from something else. But these days they say it is different than.
All of this has application to so many areas of life in our country….
We look to the U.S. Constitution to do that and we grieve when told that “it is a living document, ever-changing to fit the needs of a growing nation.” Oh really? Who decided it was? (Answer: the Supreme Court did, for better or for worse.) A generation ago, the Court found “the right to privacy” inherent in the Constitution and ruled in favor of a woman’s right to have an abortion as a provision of that newly-discovered constitutional right. Once you start playing that game, you can make the Constitution say anything you like. And that’s exactly what many are attempting.
And that is why the battle over the definition and role of the Constitution has been raging for the past 40 years and is a life-or-death struggle for this country’s soul.
Americans look to Congress as our law-making authority. Alas, that ever-changing body, which seems as hopelessly lost as it ever was, keeps vacillating and back-tracking and deliberating. Every two years the American people will throw out a large number of Congress members and install new ones, only to repeat the process twenty-four months later.
We want authorities in our religion, and are lost without them. Each religion, to my knowledge, has some kind. The LDS has a body of ruling elders in Salt Lake City, the Jehovah’s Witnesses look to a mysterious ruling junta in Brooklyn, and most evangelical Christians turn to the Bible.
The pastor of a Christian church may or may not have a body exercising authority over him. If he does–elders, deacons, administrative committee, whoever–then in all but the rarest of cases, he chafes at their intrusion. Biblically, God has given to the pastors the oversight of the church. See Acts 20:28 for starters.
Biblically. Interesting adverb.
That’s our authority. “What does the Bible say ?”
That’s also our problem. People disagree as to the answer in many cases. (Not, we hasten to add, 99 percent of the time. But that one percent contains some biggies.)
That’s where the rule of love comes in. “By this shall all men know you are my disciples that you love one another” (John 13:33-34). It’s the reason for submission. “Be subject to one another in the fear of the Lord” (Ephesians 5:21).
Love + submission = humility.
Without love and submission–and the humility they produce–it’s a constant dog fight.
I’ve known churches that were in “constant dog fights” as they struggled to decide who would call the shots.
Pastors and other leaders must personify love and submission by the humility they exhibit in their daily walk, their public preaching/teaching, and their leadership.
Congregations must live by the love-submission standard of humility if they would please the Lord and be used of Him to bring the gospel to the world.
Our Lord said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
I think He’s saying He’s in charge.
What a revolutionary thought.