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Letters to a dictionary: Competing views of language in the reception of "Webster's Third New International Dictionary"

Anne Pence Bello, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abstract

The publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary in September 1961 set off a national controversy about dictionaries and language that ultimately included issues related to linguistics and English education. The negative reviews published in the press about the Third have shaped beliefs about the nature of the dictionary itself as well as assumptions about dictionary users' desire for authority. Additionally, the reviews influenced how scholars in English, linguistics, and the emerging field of composition studies viewed the public's understandings of language and attitudes toward structural linguistics. ^ Drawing on archival evidence from the correspondence files of Merriam-Webster, Inc., as well articles published in the popular press and scholarly journals in the 1960s, this dissertation reexamines many of the claims made about the Third. First, it reconsiders assumptions about the influence of structural linguistics on the dictionary, showing that the Third was primarily shaped by a research-oriented attitude toward language. Then, it traces how the claims about structural linguistics evolved in the press coverage of the Third. It then examines how scholars publishing in journals like College English and College Composition and Communication responded to these claims about the dictionary. Finally, it analyzes letters sent from dictionary users around the country to complicate assumptions about dictionaries, language, and linguistics circulating in the published writing on the Third. ^ The letters sent to Merriam-Webster reveal that while the controversy surrounding the Third did influence how some individuals perceived the dictionary, many people had far more nuanced and complicated responses than anyone publishing about the dictionary at the time seems to have anticipated. In particular, the letters indicate that assumptions about public hostility to linguistics were unfounded and that many dictionary users did not conceive of lexicographic authority as absolute. Reexamining the response to the Third opens up new possibilities for studying public beliefs about language and English education, especially in relation to composition studies. ^

Subject Area

Linguistics|Education history|Rhetoric

Recommended Citation

Bello, Anne Pence, "Letters to a dictionary: Competing views of language in the reception of "Webster's Third New International Dictionary"" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3603053.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI3603053

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