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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The…

The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper'… (edition 2010)

by Jack W. Lynch

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Title:The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park
Authors:Jack W. Lynch
Info:Walker & Company (2010), Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Kindle database
Tags:history, linguistics

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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch


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Those who compile dictionaries are called lexicographers. There are relatively few of them in this world. Does anyone go to college with the idea of becoming a lexicographer? Yet lexicographers serve an important function. The question, as expressed in Jack Lynch's book "The Lexicographer's Dilemma," is what exactly is that function? Is it to describe words as they are actually being used in spoken and written language or to determine which uses are, in fact, proper and which are not?

The existence of the American Heritage Dictionary resulted from this conflict, Lynch tells us. Critics decided Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961 was just too descriptive, including vulgar words and such words as ain't that, while often heard, had never previously been recognized by a dictionary. So the American Heritage Dictionary was introduced to provide a prescriptive alternative to Webster's.

For most of the history of the English language, there were neither prescriptivists nor descriptivists. But there were no dictionaries either. Those who could write were free to spell words however they wanted to and make them mean whatever they chose. In time, as printed material became more commonplace and more people learned to read and write, some standardization became necessary. This led to dictionaries and, inevitably, to attempts by some people to tell other people the proper way to use their language.

Lynch reviews the contributions to the debate made by such people as John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Priestly, Noah Webster, James Murray, George Bernard Shaw and even comedian George Carlin. And it all makes more interesting reading than you might think.

The author concludes by suggesting there is a place for both prescriptivists and descriptivists. What's most important in any language is clarity. I must be able to understand what you are saying, and vice versa. That means we need some common ground about what words mean, how to spell them and how to use them in sentences. Enter parents who correct our grammar and teach us to say please and thank you. Enter teachers who red-ink our theme papers. Enter those copy editors who strive to make sure those books, magazines, newspapers and websites we read are, in fact, readable and understandable.

Instead of worrying about what is correct English, Lynch says, we need to focus on what is appropriate English. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Apr 5, 2017 |
Every book on language that I read becomes my favorite of the genre, simply because of my passion for language, words, etymologies, and the like. However, this stands out as a clear champion for several reasons. Firstly, he absolutely stays on message of the subtitle on the book. There's a tremendous focus from which the author does not veer. Secondly, and this represents a huge bias on my part, he lays to rest so many of the curiosities of various head-scratching spellings endemic in the language. For me, he settled them, and I couldn't be more thrilled. Thirdly, his pertinent histories of the relevant subjects are concise, illuminating and never overwritten. Fourth, he absolutely accepts all evolutions with grace, forgoing the panic in our culture when definitions and usage change. They're so supposed to. I get that now. Finally, in the closing pages, he reveals something I've believed for a long time - enhancing my bias: that the word "whom" will die in the next century. This should be standard reading in all English college courses. ( )
  MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
This book is entertaining while doing a great job of telling the history of how our language has come to be compiled--while also explaining what the "dilemma" of the title is. Lynch shows how the two camps (prescriptivists and descriptivists) have tussled ever since there was something to tussle about. Is a dictionary meant to compile and describe the language as it is spoken, or is it meant to tell us how it "should" be spoken, which is never the same thing? There is even a chapter on the "bad words" which, for anyone who ever looked up a swear word in the school dictionary as a child, is an essential part of the story. ( )
  templetonbreaks | Mar 29, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A fun read for those who like words and the history of words. ( )
  MacDiva | Oct 22, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
a delightful read for word freaks or those interested in the arcane and twisting paths of word use in english. i read it twice in a row from cover to cover. uses of english as boxing motivations: cute. ( )
  sushi105 | Jun 11, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
... an entertaining tour of the English language ...
... spends a good deal of time on the evolution of dictionaries ...
... throughout this very readable book he makes clear that he thinks the grammar scolds need to shut up, or at least tone it down ...
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Bill Reinhart, Steve Dessants, David Jepson
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Everybody complains about language, but nobody does anything about it—well, almost nobody. This book is an account of some of the people who did try to do something about it. It's about the rise of "standard English."
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Vulgarities of speech: homo sapiens learns to talk

The age in which I live: John Dryden revises his works

Proper words in proper places: Jonathan Swift demands an academy

Enchaining syllables, lashing the wind: Samuel Johnson lays down the law

The art of using words properly: Joseph Priestley seeks genuine and established principles

The people in these states: Noah Webster Americanizes the language

Words, words, words: James Murray surveys anglicity

The taste and fancy of the speller: George Bernard Shaw rewrites the ABCs

Direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid: Henry Watson Fowler shows the way

Sabotage in Springfield: Philip Gove Stokes the flames

Expletive deleted: George Carlin vexes the censors

Grammar, and nonsense, and learning: we look to the future.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802717004, Hardcover)

For language buffs and lexicographers, copy editors and proofreaders, and anyone who appreciates the connection between language and culture—the illuminating story of “proper English.”

In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers—those who have tried to regulate, or otherwise organize, the way we speak. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma offers the first narrative history of these endeavors, showing clearly that what we now regard as the only “correct” way to speak emerged out of specific historical and social conditions over the course of centuries.

As literary historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history, and the characters peopling his narrative are as interesting for their obsession as for their erudition. The struggle between prescriptivists, who prescribe a correct approach, and descriptivists, who analyze how language works, is at the heart of Lynch’s story. From the sharp-tongued satirist Jonathan Swift, who called for a governmentsponsored academy to issue rulings on the language, and the polymath Samuel Johnson, who put dictionaries on a new footing, to John Horne Tooke, the crackpot linguist whose bizarre theories continue to baffle scholars; Joseph Priestley, whose political radicalism prompted riots; and the ever-crotchety Noah Webster, whose goal was to Americanize the English language—Lynch brings to life a varied cast as illuminating as it is entertaining.

Grammatical “rules” or “laws” are not like the law of gravity, or laws against theft or murder—they’re more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change. Charting the evolution of English, Jack Lynch puts today’s debates—whether about Ebonics in the schools or split infinitives in the New York Times—in a rich historical context, and makes us appreciate anew the hard-won standards we now enjoy.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:04 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

What does proper English mean, and who gets to say what's right? Lynch has discovered every rule of English usage has a human history, and makes sense only in a historical context. They're more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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