Serious Fun

Doing Things With Words

Three books pay particular attention to how we use words.

Book Cover There are, to be sure, still people for whom the textures, subtleties, and nuances of language are of significant if not vital concern. Regular declarations of the decline of all things civilized (occasionally even I have indulged in flagrant sophomoric declinism) may just be generational ululations in the face of, well, that old boogeyman, change.

There is cause for some celebration for the wordie contingent (Word Court’s Barbara Wallraff: “Fowler is here in this book in all his glory”) as some publishers still present us with books that attend to lexicographical concerns.

Henry Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition (Oxford University Press) was first published in 1926, and that original long-out-of-print first edition has been reprised with a new introduction by lexicographer and University of Bangor (England) mentor David Crystal. For those who are concerned about such matters, Fowler’s opus is the gold standard of linguistic explication, and Crystal embellishes it with some 300 entries exhibiting changes in the English language since the original’s publication.

Jim Holt writes precisely on the celebrated tome:
Some care about getting English right; others don’t. For those who do, there is a higher authority, a sacred book, that offers guidance through our grammatical vale of tears. Its full title is “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” but among its devotees it is known, reverentially, as “Fowler.”… But heightened self-consciousness about usage is the enemy of vigor. One sees this not infrequently in Fowler’s own prose, which can be crabbed and intricate to the point of unintelligibility. One sees it also in disciples of Fowler, who turn out pedantically correct little essays in his honor (which is why I myself have adopted a slovenly, even squalid manner here). But if you do become yet another obsessive Fowlerian epicure, remember: the pleasures of usage snobbery are best enjoyed in private.
Literary historian Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park (Bloomsbury) is a jolly and therefore readable account of those fussy people. From 17th-century Englishmen Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson to English’s Americanizer Noah Webster, Lynch draws the battle lines between the prescriptivists, who prescribe a correct approach, and descriptivists, who analyze how language works. Lynch enlivens the narrative on a subject otherwise unglamorous to many readers.

Book Cover And now for something not quite completely different—Emily Arsenault’s debut novel, The Broken Teaglass (Delacorte Press) (reportedly written in a South African mud-brick house), whose main characters labor at the venerable Samuelson Company, studying the English language and searching for fresh expressions and newly coined words in preparation for a new edition of the Samuelson Dictionary. Billy Webb and Mona Minot both discover multitudinous citations from a book, The Broken Teaglass, whose existence they cannot verify, which leads to a previously hidden identity, an unsolved crime, and—well, I don’t think I should tell. In any case it is both a clever literary puzzler and a subtle thriller.
biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum

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