Magazine article Communication World

You Have to Know So Much to Write So Little

Magazine article Communication World

You Have to Know So Much to Write So Little

Article excerpt

I remember feeling a rush of this freshening breeze in 1967, and how I believed the time was right to put together a short piece I wouldn't have proposed to my conservative employers a few years earlier.

It was cocktail time that St. Valentine's Day, a Thursday it was, and shivery cold as a raw, salty Boston Harbor wind whirled westward up Huntington Avenue's trolley tracks to rattle the glass doors of the Midtown Motor Inn there on Copley Square's cheapside.

You'll probably guess the year when I mention that the industrial editors hurrying inside to their monthly meeting would shell out-this is for parking, dinner, and program-$3.95 apiece. (Nice try, partner: It was 1963.)

With seventy-five people expected, and the guest speaker skimming a mere $25, the Massachusetts Industrial Editors Association was assured a solid profit, for once. What else was assured was the membership's official introduction to the cusp of the Age of Aquarius ... at least from the standpoint of language usage. That night, you see, the man at the lectern would be Philip B. Gove, Ph.D., editor in chief of the new and scandalously controversial Webster's Third New International Dictionary, published just months earlier.

Few people then were aware, of course, that hippiedom was just starting its roll down the runway. Indeed, Gove's new lexicon had barely snatched it up and wedged it into the Addenda, informing sedulous scholars that the hippie was "a young person who rejects the mores of established society (as by dressing unconventionally or favoring communal living), adheres to a nonviolent ethic, and often uses marijuana or psychedelic drugs; broadly, a long-haired unconventionally dressed young person." Webster's 3 could have been christened the first hippie lexicon, in a manner of speaking: It was young; its type style was unconventional, what with God being the only capped entry; and it definitely rejected the mores of traditionalists in the realm of language usage. Its greeting from the press and from certain other word freaks, however, was the antipode of nonviolence.

Decade's Uncivil Write'

The principal point of discussion was that W-3 was too permissive. Editor Gove regarded the function of his heroic work to be that of an accurate recorder of language-spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. A dictionary, Dr. Gove wrote, "should have no traffic with ... artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It must be descriptive and not prescriptive."

But opposition to his viewpoint was heavy and widespread. Two months after the Massachusetts industrial editors heard Gove declare "I am not going to defend the Third Edition: It speaks for itself," the Atlantic Monthly showcased Wilson Follett's disparaging critique for W-3 under the headline "Sabotage in Springfield" (W-3 was published in Springfield, Mass., by G. & C. Merriam Co., now Merriam-Webster Inc.). Follett, an author and editor and authority on usage, observed, "What will rank as the great event of American linguistic history in this decade, and perhaps in this quarter century, is in many crucial particulars a very great calamity." (Later, the Atlantic would set aside space for Bergen Evans's contrary opinion, "But What's a Dictionary For?")

One legacy of W-3, in the eyes of many editors and writers, was a blurring of the distinctions between good usage and bad usage, a "cheapening of the English language," as a Boston Globe editorial put it on February 16, 1963.

If W-3 did play a part in the softening attitudes toward prescriptive language usage that flourished during the sentimental, psychedelic sixties-one wag called it the decade's leading uncivil write"-it was not the proximate cause. Trends toward what was avant garde, toward communal living, toward broader civil liberties were also players, and these spawned not only new perceptions about verbal expression, but new thinking about what stories should be told. …

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