Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park

Posted by nliakos on June 9, 2014

by Jack Lynch (Walker & Company 2009)

This is a great book for word nerds. It’s all about the (mostly unsuccessful) attempts through the centuries to harness English speakers and make them speak and write in particular ways. I learned about Dryden, Swift, Johnson, Priestley, Webster, Murray, Fowler, Roget, Gove and many others, both prescriptivists (those who try to lay down rules for others to follow) and descriptivists (those who are content to describe people’s actual language usage). I read about why there is no English Academy (basically: the English, and now the Americans, are too unruly) and about grammars and spellers and dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary (stay tuned for more on that when I read The Professor and the Madman later this summer) and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which “generated the kind of ire that one expects to see in quarrels between pro-lifers and pro-choicers, between jihadists and Zionists, or even between Red Sox and Yankees fans.”  I discovered that the dictionary that has been on my shelves for most of my adult life, the Anerican Heritage Dictionary, got its start “as a kind of antidote to the laissez-faire descriptivism of Webster’s Third.”  (Who knew?)  As I read, I considered the dilemma of lexicographers (and English teachers!) everywhere: what to include and exclude, and whether or not to label words as substandard, colloquial, dialect, etc. I enjoyed every page.

3 Responses to “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park”

  1. Maggie said

    So glad you liked this too. You will love “The Professor and the Madman,” I promise!

  2. Veronica Baig said

    It sounds fascinating. I like the explanation for why there is no Academy–many of my students were bemused by the rather anarchical situation of English. I think you will enjoy “The Professor and the Madman”; in case you didn’t know, there is an American connection.

  3. […] book is a good follow-up to The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, which had its own chapter on the making of the greatest dictionary in the world. (Another good one […]

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