The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park
Jack Lynch
Walker & Company, 2009

In this book the dilemma in question, says the author, is sorting out “who (or what) determines what’s ‘right’ in written and spoken English.” Jack Lynch, a professor of English at Rutgers University, explains why, for better or worse, common usage is the ultimate authority. Along the way he conducts a chronological tour of efforts to clean up the messiness of our language, with chapter topics running from homo sapiens’s earliest use of speech to Noah Webster’s Americanization of English to the stir caused by comedian George Carlin’s provocative use of expletives. A book reviewer in the Philadelphia Inquirer saw fit to say that The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is “filled with scrumptious stories,” and this reader wholeheartedly agrees.

One of the most surprising chapters is “Sabotage in Springfield” – Springfield, Massachusetts, the home of G. C. Merriam Company, the publisher of Webster’s dictionaries. Furor erupted in 1961 when Merriam published Webster’s Third, a renegade compilation which, Lynch says, “did not presume to tell people how they should speak and write [but] instead offered an ostensibly objective report on how people did speak and write.”  More than a few reviewers and academics were outraged by the promotion of ain’t and other “barbarisms” from colloquial to standard status; by the dictionary’s approving acceptance of slang (e.g., footsie, yakking, wise up, ants in the pants); and by the inclusion of neologisms (the word for newly coined words) reflecting the times (astronaut [!], countdown [!!]. beatnik, sit-in, drip-dry). Today it is clear who won the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism battle – i.e., strict rules vs. common usage – if not the war, and Lynch does an excellent job of telling us why. Word lovers worldwide would do well to own this absorbing tome.

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