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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park First Edition Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0802717009
ISBN-10: 0802717004
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Editorial Reviews

Review

“Lynch writes in funny and engaging prose about the human side of language history and the people who have helped make English so darn complex. From Jonathan Swift's government-sponsored language academy to George Carlin's seven censorious words, Lynch's English has been subjected not only to grammatical rules but to their cultural foundations. Lynch's highly readable book will appeal to all users of the English language, from word buffs to scholars alike.” ―Library Journal

“Lynch recognizes that grace, clarity, and precision of expression are paramount. His many well-chosen and entertaining examples support his conclusion that prescriptions and pedantry will always give way to change, and that we should stop fretting, relax, and embrace it.” ―Boston Globe

About the Author

Jack Lynch is a professor of English at Rutgers University and a Johnson scholar, having studied the great lexicographer for nearly a decade. He is the editor of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary and the author of Samuel Johnson's Insults and Becoming Shakespeare. He lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books; First Edition edition (October 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802717004
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802717009
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.3 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #595,444 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Laura Probst VINE VOICE on November 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover
One might expect the first adjective, but certainly not the other two when describing a book on the subjects of linguistics and lexicography. However, I believe that this book will not only appeal to those familiar with these subjects, but also to those taking their first foray into the territory. This isn't some fusty old textbook, laying out the history of the English language, invasion to invasion, scribe to Gutenberg. Instead, it's a jolly romp through the trials and travails of those intimately involved with the attempt to categorize, curtail, and clean up our messy, confusing English language; from the curmudgeonly to confused, from shy to boastful, from historically famous to those left behind as mere footnotes. The biggest selling point is the fact that modern contributors to English aren't ignored, glossed over, or treated as a pox upon our "noble" language. Many familiar names are referenced alongside (or, more accurately, right after) the more sedate, historical personages such as Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster: George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Quentin Tarantino--those who, in their own colorful, creative, and ofttimes controversial way, continue to shape what we know as "good" English and "bad" English. And, yes, that includes South Park. The phenomenon brought about by the Internet Age--blogging, texting, Tweeting--all those activities supported by a vast multitude of unnamed persons who support these endeavors with their own shorthand versions of English, also earns a place in the lineage of our language.

Upon reading this book, I realized something very important: Nothing is new. From the dawn of language itself, people have been bemoaning its demise.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'll admit it: I'm a word-nerd. But even if you're not the sort of person who reads Fowler for fun, there's much here to delight anyone who loves language. If you've ever wondered what that "p" is doing in "receipt", or argued with a friend over the status of "ain't", you're sure to enjoy this book.

The "dilemma" in the title refers to the tension between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to English usage and grammar: between documenting the way English is actually written or spoken and enforcing someone's idea of "proper" English. Although he's also the author of The English Language: A User's Guide, Lynch is no narrow-minded prescriptivist. As he writes in the concluding chapter: "Speaking and writing our own language shouldn't be a chore; we should resist all attempts to make us feel ashamed of speaking the way the rest of the world speaks." At the same time, Lynch treats the oft-maligned "18th-century grammarians" fairly, presenting them as more than caricatures and giving historical context for their efforts.

The Lexicographer's Dilemma is fascinating because it touches on so many subjects in the course of exploring this central theme: from the great dictionaries and the people who edited them to the vagaries of English orthography and the many, futile attempts to reform it; from Dryden and Swift to George Carlin. Though I found the final three chapters less interesting (and a bit preachy), I found most of the book as gripping as a well-plotted novel. I also learned a great deal, despite a life-long fascination with the subject matter and a shelf full of similar books. Finally, Lynch's own writing is clear and full of good humor.
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Format: Hardcover
The curious thing about the prescriptive tradition of English language punditry is not that it exists. Every widely used written language develops one, because they all exist on a continuum of formal versus colloquial styles. Written language cannot fully express some communication strategies used in spoken language, and therefore needs new ones. No, what makes the English language tradition of stylistic guidance different is the peculiar vehemence and rancor its more recent exponents use in delivering their judgments.

To me, the most interesting point this book makes is to set out the origin of the tradition in class anxiety. When kings were kings and lords were lords, they had no need to be anxious as to whether their usage was "correct" or not. Rather, the rise of a newly literate middle class caused anxiety over appropriate style and grammar to arise. People whose grandparents had no need for reading or writing wanted to be certain that their written text conformed to prestige varieties of English, and thus became consumers of dictionaries, works of instruction on prose models, and style guides. Prof. Lynch, a Samuel Johnson scholar whose previous works include a selection of gems from Johnson's dictionary, is well situated to give an account of this process.

In one standard narrative, "eighteenth century grammarians" are made the villains of this process. This book debunks that narrative. These grammarians were not a pack of self-important schoolmasters enforcing arbitrary decrees with rod and cane. They were, in fact, first rate minds. They included Joseph Priestley, the chemist who caused no end of trouble with his invention of oxygen; and Robert Lowth, a less well known name, but one of the period's profoundest Old Testament scholars.
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