Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
The French are funny about their language, as everyone knows. But then, so are the Germans, the Italians, the Belgians, the Canadians, the Turks, the Slovakians, the Russians, and the Sri Lankans. And so are we in the United States, for that matter, although we tend to make only an intermittent public fuss about it. In many other nations, “the language question” is a persistent topic for newspaper editorials, television talk shows, and parliamentary debates, and occasionally the source of major political crises. In the USA, discussions of language tend to rumble along in Sunday-supplement features and the usage screeds arrayed in the language shelves at the back of the bookstore.
Every so often, though, controversies over the language erupt into a wider national discussion in America. That has happened perhaps half-a-dozen times in the last half century. In the early 1960s, there was a furor over the publication of the Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which took what critics regarded as an excessively permissive attitude toward usage – it refused to condemn the use of ain't for “am not,” and it included the “incorrect” use of like as a conjunction, as in “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” The dictionary's derelictions were front-page news for months – The New York Times condemned it as a “bolshevik” document, and the Chicago Daily News took it as the symptom of “a general decay in values.”