The Lexicographer’s Dilemma The Evolution of “Proper” English from Shakespeare to South Park, by Jack Lynch (Walker and Company, N.Y., 2009)
Did you ever worry about not speaking “proper” English? Or became confused when trying to write it? How about your mastery of English grammar? Do you wonder about the difference between English and American English? How about spelling? Anyway, if you have any doubts about your ability to speak and write your native language, read this wonderful book and relax. I know I overwork the word fascinating, but this is truly a fascinating, marvelous, informative, and enjoyable work that everyone should probably read. Jack Lynch is a professor of English at Rutgers University and a specialist on Samuel Johnson, he has produced a wonderful and most useful book on the problems of lexicography.
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is on the one hand a history for the search of proper English, but it is also a history of dictionaries. There were no rules for speaking or writing English even in Shakespeare’s time. The question of proper English was not even a question until the Industrial Revolution when people were moving from the country into the cities, especially London, and, being upwardly mobile for the first time, and not wanting to appear as country bumpkins, knew they should learn to speak more properly. But what was proper English? Basically, at first, proper English became what the wealthy spoke, but as that did not turn out to be a very useful standard, eventually dictionaries began to appear that attempted to prescribe proper speech. Although there were smaller attempts at dictionaries prior to Samuel Johnson’s monumental work, his became the standard for many years to come. Samuel Johnson was a most unlikely choice to attempt a Dictionary of the English Language, but he did, and when you read this account of his attempt you will appreciate the enormous difficulty of creating such a book as a dictionary, the problems you have probably never even imagined, and the difficulty in actually defining a word. Johnson was smart enough to realize that he was not in any position himself to just arbitrarily make up meanings and usages, so he used the works of the greatest writers of his time as a standard.
After the American Revolution, when the U.S. became independent of England a similar problem arose, was America simply to use the English language as it was spoken by the mother country, or should it have a language of its own? Noah Webster, a great American patriot, decided there needed to be an American Dictionary of the English Language, and set out to create one. He knew there were many words spoken in America that were not included in English English, and vice versa, and he also attempted to improve on both spellings and definitions. Later came many attempts by different authorities to dictate proper writing styles, rules of grammar, the development of the thesaurus, and other developments that have led to Roget and the Merriam-Webster that are current today, as well as the modern version of the greatest dictionary of all, The Oxford English Dictionary. Following these developments you learn the difference between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries and linguistics, as well as the enormous problems involved in lexicography in general. You will also learn a great deal about grammar, where the rules originated and why, and also why it is that spoken and written English are so incredibly different. Along the way you will find discussions of how and why different authorities attempted at various times to define proper usage, and how they inevitably failed. There are myriad truly interesting examples given of where words originated, how they changed over time, and how it is there can be no permanent standards. There is also a fine discussion of vulgar speech and words that are to this day not allowed on television (as George Carlin, following Lenny Bruce made clear), as well as some hints as to what will become of our language in the future as a result of computers, globalization and other developments.
You may or may not be pleased to learn that no one knows how many words there are in the English language, and that, indeed, it is impossible to know that. You will also be relieved to know that the rules of grammar and our written language are nowhere near as absolute as you may think they are, no matter what your English teachers have insisted they should be for so many years (you will not really go to hell for split infinitives, for example). I found it most interesting, even comforting, to learn that it is possible to say things that are perfectly grammatically correct (supposedly) but are at the same time completely meaningless, and that meaningful statements can be said and written that are not grammatically correct. The fact is, and has been for a very long time, most speakers of English know the basic rules of proper speech, and even writing (although less so) although they do not know that they know them. Being one of that multitude I found this book to be one of the most useful I have ever read.