Philip Gove and “Our Word”

A lexicographer remembers the worst frigging part of the job

Rosmarie Voegtli (rvoegtli/Flickr)
Rosmarie Voegtli (rvoegtli/Flickr)

“A word is just a word,” wrote the lexicographer Philip Gove, “an arbitrary arrangement of letters, even though culturally fixed by tradition.”

It was the beginning of a draft of an article. A note in a pile of notes, jotted down on the same kind of slip of paper that Gove used to record quotations for the dictionary he had edited, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, or, more simply, Webster’s Third, published in 1961.

Gove had written elsewhere that lexicography “should have no traffic with guesswork, prejudice, or bias, or artificial notions of correctness and superiority.” A descriptivist—that is, one who believes dictionaries ought to describe the language as it used and not prescribe how it ought to be used—he had been influenced by the scientific view of language put forward by modern linguistics. And, like most linguists, he took a dim view of classroom rules that did not reflect how English was actually spoken and written.

In Webster’s Third, Gove had banished the Victorian labels used in Webster’s Second (1934), where troublesome words (if they were even allowed in the dictionary) were labeled colloquial, erroneous, jocular, gallic, and so on. His own approach was minimalistic. In Webster’s Third, the notorious irregardless was labeled nonstandard but hep, galore, and countless other informal terms were presented without any labels at all. A less categorical approach, it was also less judgmental—and was not well-received.

A great furor ensued. The New York Times called on the publisher to go back and remake the dictionary. In The Atlantic, Wilson Follett described the Third as “a very great calamity.” An essay in The New Yorker by Dwight Macdonald ended with a long quotation from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, saying that even little things—a wrongheaded dictionary, for one—can set the earth adrift, cause the oceans to rise, and render all notions of right and wrong meaningless.

All this and more Gove endured pretty quietly. A New Englander by birth, he and his wife, Grace, lived on a farm in central Massachusetts. Their three children addressed him as Philip but knew to leave their father alone when he was working. Life in the Gove house was prosaic and economical. If the chickens produced more than the family needed, Philip brought eggs to the office to sell to his colleagues.

In Philip’s capacity as editor at G. and C. Merriam, lower-ranking employees addressed him as Mr. Gove or, for his PhD in literature, Dr. Gove. He managed or, rather, governed the staff through highly technical memos that prescribed a definer’s every move. The production schedule for Webster’s Third was tight and the work stressful, but Gove did little to soften the edges for himself or anyone else. At the end of a long day of reading proofs and correcting editors, he returned to the farm and lowered the dial with a belt of whiskey.

When newspapers and magazines were accusing Webster’s Third of demolishing all standards and possibly hastening the end times, Gove occasionally defended his dictionary in letters to the editor, making his case as diplomatically as he could, the prickly professor for once playing the good company man. But, in his notes to himself, the strain was beginning to show. Again and again, he returned to the criticism that may have bothered him the most. It involved a single word.

Gove had spent his whole career thinking about words. During the Great Depression, he finagled WPA funding to copy all the literary quotations in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary onto index cards, in preparation for a monograph he never found the time to write. He then became, in his own opinion, an authority on insincere words during the 15 years he spent reading student papers as a composition instructor at New York University. And in World War II, as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, he thought often about bureaucratic words before deciding that, given the infelicities of military speak, he did not want to remain in uniform during peacetime. Instead, he looked for work at G. and C. Merriam in Springfield, Massachusetts, and a few years later, he found himself a middle-aged lexicographer of modest reputation, at the head of their most prestigious dictionary.

The word on his mind—let’s not beat about the bush any longer—was fuck. It was not in the dictionary he had edited. The only major expletive left out of Webster’s Third, the word had not been printed in the pages of any dictionary, with all its letters, since the 18th century. Yet its absence from Webster’s Third was widely noted, though always in a way that spared magazines and newspapers from having to print the word themselves. “All the chief four- and five-letter words are here,” wrote Dwight Macdonald in The New Yorker, “with the exception of perhaps the most important one.”

Gove himself had written an entry, defining the verb as “to copulate with” and providing a usage note: “considered obscene and usu. unprintable.” The galley page also shows an entry for the noun form (1. “an act of copulation”) and a follow-on entry for fuck up, also labeled obscene and “usu. unprintable.”

These had been kept out by Merriam’s president, a former advertising manager named Gordon Gallan whose own memo on the subject came to light a few years ago in the unsorted basement files of Merriam-Webster. Lindsay Rose Russell, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of Women Making Dictionaries, found it, unlabeled, amid unrelated materials.

“Please delete the following completely: fuck . . .vb; fuck . . . n., fuck up . . . vt.” Gallan then explained, “While recognizing the widespread use of these terms in vulgar and sometimes colloquial speech, it is my judgment that their inclusion would be misinterpreted to the extent so as to seriously affect the sale of 3d Ed.”

The brief memo, addressed to Gove, ended with a request for information about any other entries dictionary users might find “morally objectionable,” but Gove, in his own notes, called the ruling on fuck “the only instance of direct noneditorial interference in making of W3.”

The other notes in Gove’s pile—which, in early June, were exhibited at the biennial meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America, along with other selections that I curated from Gove’s papers at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center—tracked the dozen or so reviews and essays, of many that were published, that specifically mentioned the failure of Webster’s Third to include an entry for this infamous four-letter word.

Reviewers said many harsh things about Gove’s dictionary, much of it deserved. Its steadfast opposition to capital letters was highly eccentric. Its tendency to quote pop culture figures instead of the demigods of English literature, though justifiable, invited sneers. The dictionary’s awkward handling of ain’t became an object of fun among reviewers. A famous cartoon in The New Yorker showed the receptionist at Merriam telling a visitor, “Sorry. Dr. Gove ain’t in.”

Few dictionaries, if any, had been the subject of so much bitter commentary, printed or otherwise. And it was not only traditionalists who were upset. Even the dictionary’s defenders complained that its usage guidance was underwhelming, its pronunciations too numerous for general use, and its defining style robotic.

In some quarters, though, Webster’s Third was hailed as a great example of intellectual honesty in defiance of the scolds and the schoolmarms who would have us think that language is no more than a litany of rules to be drilled into the heads of schoolchildren. Linguists and language historians commended Gove’s achievement. As a scholarly record of contemporary English, Webster’s Third, they said, had no equal.

Gove’s file, however, made a fetish of this one instance in which he agreed with his critics. Instead of telling the truth about fuck, he and Gallan and Merriam had ended up recycling the old lie, censoring this popular lexeme and refusing it admittance, as if the dictionary were a highbrow country club instead of a searching inventory of words.

The law had been on Gove’s side. As another of his notes recorded, it had been considered legal in the United States to set fuck in print since July 21, 1959, when Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan cleared the way for Grove Press to publish D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Today, of course, you can find the F-word on T-shirts, coffee mugs, handbags, in the pages of The New Yorker, and, as of a few years ago, in the title of a children’s book parody for parents wishing their children would “go the fuck to sleep.”

Gove’s notes also cite academic works. One name in particular stands out: Allen Walker Read, a professor at Columbia who as a young scholar recorded taboo language inscribed on the walls of public bathrooms. Among his best-known works is a long essay called “An Obscenity Symbol,” dealing entirely with the word fuck. A canonical piece on the history of American English, it was published in 1934 (the same year as the expletive-free Webster’s Second) and does not once use, say, or print the word it is about.

In one of his notes to himself, Gove wrote down Read’s name and then two words in quotes: “our word,” one of the euphemistic workarounds that Read used to refer to fuck in “An Obscenity Symbol.” With hash marks on the same card, Gove painstakingly counted the number of times Read used the phrase.

In his notes, Gove further wrote that a word “has no power to kill, rape, discredit, belittle. It cannot even offend unless its readers and hearers choose to be offended by its appearance in letters or sounds. Often its effect depends on something often not considered language at all … gesture and grimaces. People seem to think words exist and function without intonation, pitch.”

Gove was not known for his subtle grasp of register in language. One also imagines he would have had some difficulty representing ideas about context that later became a major concern of sociolinguistics. And his idea that readers and hearers must choose to be offended, though interesting, is all too one-sided.

Still he was onto something that dictionaries are not very good at accounting for: the fact that a word’s meaning and appropriateness can vary greatly by situation. Which helps explain why many offensive terms can, at times, be bandied about casually and even used as in-group terms of affection. This very aspect of offensive language is sometimes hard to explain without seeming insensitive to an offensive word’s more obviously offensive aspects.

In another note, Gove wrote down “Nowottny” and a page citation, quoting a line as he half-remembered it: “‘No word is ever’ etc.” The actual line from The Language Poets Use by Winifred Nowottny, then a lecturer in English at the University College, London, reads: “there are no bad words or good words; there are only words in bad or good places.” This would is a rather strong version of Gove’s own belief that the place of a word all but determines its rightness or wrongness.

A major problem with Gove’s critics, by his lights, was that they believed the quality and effect of a given word were unchanging, fixed, and therefore easy to label. (Gove, I am pretty sure, would be just as unhappy with those language critics today who go around saying, “Words matter,” as if they always matter in the same way, even in different situations.)

Words do matter, Gove would have agreed, but he insisted that their place matters too. This contextual way of thinking is not without problems, however, for Gove’s position on fuck.

First, it should be said that context helps explain why a dictionary might be the ideal place for an unbiased accounting of offensive words. A fair-minded entry for the F-word is not likely to degrade morals or lead anyone to think the lexicographer is trying to “do dirt on sex,” to borrow a phrase from Lawrence. But a dictionary, like the words it defines, exists not in just one context but many. It has an explanatory role to play, but also a profit-making role. And focusing on the commercial context of a dictionary makes it easy to see why Gove’s boss wanted to avoid putting fuck in a book that he and Gove both hoped would sell like hotcakes and end up sitting in millions of family rooms across America.

In 1965, the British Penguin English Dictionary became the first English-language dictionary to set fuck in print, as explained in The F-Word, Jesse Sheidlower’s history of the term. Merriam’s rival, the American Heritage Dictionary, first published in 1969, became the first American dictionary to print and define the term.

After Webster’s Third—which, indeed, sold quite well—Gove continued to work on dictionaries at Merriam, overseeing a list of terms known as “scat,” short for “scatological.” More house lingo than dictionary definition, “scat” includes slang words for bodily functions as well as racial and ethnic epithets. Thus was Gove given a second chance to prepare an entry for fuck, which Merriam finally included in its eighth collegiate dictionary, first printed in March of 1973.

Philip Gove, however, did not get to see his word published. He had died a few months before.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Skinner is the author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. He served on the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and has written about usage and dictionaries in many publications.


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