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Short Takes

‘The Story of Ain’t’; ‘Fobbit’; ‘The Seventeen Solutions’

THE STORY OF AIN’T: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published

By David Skinner

Harper, 349 pp., $26.99

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It’s something elementary school students and most word-processing programs are happy to tell you: Ain’t isn’t a word. Both are wrong, of course. But when a major American dictionary treated the word differently than previous dictionaries had — defining it and even endorsing its use in the first person singular interrogative sense (“ain’t I?”) before marking it as “substandard” and “disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech” — the book became a battleground in a midcentury culture war. In this highly entertaining, thoughtful new book, David Skinner lays out the battle over “ain’t” — specifically its inclusion in 1961 in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language — starting with the previous Webster’s, which had presented itself as an Ivy League-affiliated, omniscient, and infallible authority on proper usage. In the world of Webster’s Second, “a given word was always, very simply, either polite or not.” For managing editor Philip Gove and most linguists, Skinner points out, it was obvious that a “dictionary was not the language; a dictionary, even an unabridged dictionary, was only a selective inventory of the language.” When Gove began preparing for Webster’s Third, it was probably inevitable that new ideas about language — the result of a long evolution within academia — would seem like a revolution, challenging notions of class, culture, tradition, knowledge, and civilization itself.

Skinner profiles Webster’s Third’s most damning critics, especially journalist Dwight Macdonald, whose review in the New Yorker was both influential and scathing. Critics cried that Webster’s Third had “surrendered to the permissive school” and accused it of causing “the death of meaning” and promoting “bolshevism.” A key figure among New York’s anti-Stalinist literati, Macdonald took issue with the dictionary’s definition of McCarthyism as well as its alleged grammatical laxity. As Skinner chronicles the enmeshed politics, literature, and language from the 1930s to the Cold War, one marvels both at the high stakes in this “literary-intellectual drama” and the persistence of the argument. One can hear the early strains of today’s neoconservatism in the way he characterizes Macdonald’s chief complaint: “Linguistic decline became inexorable unless people insisted on standards”

FOBBIT

By David Abrams

Black Cat, 372 pp., paperback, $15

A Fobbit, like a Hobbit, is a homebody; in this case, home is Forward Operating Base (FOB) Triumph, in Baghdad. In his first novel, David Abrams, an Army veteran who served as a public affairs officer in Iraq in 2005, trains a sharp eye on the Powerpoint presentations and business jargon that wouldn’t be out of place in any major corporation, the pathetic reminders of home (the saddest: baby wipes to recall the scent of a newborn left behind), and the terrifying scenes outside of base: “the muttering Iraqis; the bleating goats; the restless, sideways glances of his own soldiers; the scraps of trash snapping in the wind; the broken and bleeding terrorist in the middle of the marketplace.”

The book meanders through boredom, anguish, and absurdity, and in its details feel stunningly authentic. Some of the characters are less so — there’s a cartoonish quality to the overweight mama’s boy of a boss — but the book is still a delicious, unsettling read.

THE SEVENTEEN SOLUTIONS: Bold Ideas for Our American Future

By Ralph Nader

Harper, 357 pp., paperback, $14.99

The word “the” in the title rankles. Ralph Nader, crusading consumer advocate and controversial political candidate, doesn’t merely offer 17 solutions for restoring American strength, equality, and goodness: he offers “the” (best? definitive? only?) 17 solutions. While it’s probably not fair to blame Nader for the smug tone of his book’s title (titles are often heavily influenced by the marketing and sales divisions of publishing houses), readers may find themselves bracing for a pedantic prescription for national improvement. In this, Nader doesn’t disappoint.

Among the suggestions he offers are enduring Nader talking points: protection of civil liberties, ending corporate welfare, reforming the tax code, empowering consumer and citizen groups. He includes a few curve balls, too, calling for a renewed involvement in amateur athletics at all levels (both to improve our health and to disrupt the commercialization of sports) and for parental commitment to “challenge the electronic violence and other addictive debris that are polluting our children’s environment.” Few could argue with these ideas, or with Nader’s plea for greater civic engagement by citizens. Still, there’s something smug at work here, and the absence of a “solution” for the problem of poorly-run elections seems a particularly ironic oversight.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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