The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

The Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack LynchFull Title: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park
Jack Lynch
Publisher: Walker & Company (2009)
Number of Pages: 296
How long it took me to read: 2 weeks
Where I got this book: It was a Christmas gift from my sister.
ISBN: 978-0802717009

Like a Moth to a Flame

Something my older sister and I have always shared is a love of words. As soon as I became old enough to have interesting conversations with (at twelve or thirteen), my sister and I began arguing over pronunciations, squabbling over Scrabble, writing and telling each other stories, and, above all, sharing books. Now that we live almost two thousand miles apart, none of the rituals of our literary sisterhood happen as often as we’d like. In my last year of college, however, my sister gave me The Lexicographer’s Dilemma for Christmas, perhaps hoping to spark another one of our interesting conversations. Unfortunately, it’s taken me almost two years to pick it up, but I’m sure we’ll ignite an email debate over Lynch’s work in no time.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “If you write a dictionary all by yourself, how can you avoid being the sole arbiter of the language? Johnson’s answer to this conundrum determined the character of his book… definitions, the usual business of a dictionary, occupy just a small part of it. The majority is actually quotations, around 114,000 of them, from the greatest writers in the English language. And it’s the quotations that do the serious business of the Dictionary. Johnson’s greatest achievement was not dictating to the great writers in the language but listening to them.” (p.87)

4. “It turns out that many of the rules routinely attributed to the eighteenth-century grammarians were never discussed by anyone in the eighteenth century. The split infinitive is a favorite example…. And many modern sources tell us that it was the wicked eighteenth-century grammarians who brainwashed us into this bizarre superstition.” (pp.94-5)

3. “The academics have to remember—and be willing to admit—that there are times when prescription is just the thing. Too many descriptive linguists forget, or pretend to forget, that certain social contexts… call for a distinctive register of the language that most people haven’t mastered on their own…. But prescription without a sound knowledge of the actual practice of the majority of a language’s speakers is not merely misguided; it’s actually destructive.” (pp.114-5)

2. “If 51 percent of people on the street use the word in a new sense, do they now authorize the new meaning? Or should the threshold be lower—say, 25 percent of speakers? And is it any speakers, or should we accept only the best users of language? If it’s the latter, who gets to decide who’s best?” (p.212)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Perhaps there are still a few diehards who take the omnibus and suffer from influenza; the rest of us take the bus and catch the flu. These purists are probably the same people who have never opened a fridge, entered a lab, worked out in a gym, taken an exam, filled a tank with gas, played a piano or a cello, worn a bra, seen a movie or a sitcom, taken a plane, dialed a phone, written a memo, or visited a zoo—all abbreviated forms of longer words.” (p.270)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: neologism (noun)

Definition (Source: 1) a new word, usage, or expression; 2) a word coined by a psychotic that is meaningless except to the coiner
: from Greek neo ‘new’ and logos ‘word’
As in: “Other neologisms serve as reminders of just how much the world was changing in the late 1950s and early ’60s….” (pp.215-6)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I’m having trouble really getting engaged by the first half of this book. Perhaps it’s because my degree is in English Literature and because I’ve discussed a great number of the issues of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma before that I feel the pace is a bit too plodding. Lynch’s style is exemplary, but the content is weighed down with examples. I find myself skimming ahead to see how many paragraphs I have to go before he moves on to his next point. For example, when discussing Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary, Lynch brings up all five of Johnson’s definitions of the word ‘light’ and describes the difficulty and nuance of defining each one. Though interesting, I’m relieved to reach the next section. I wish authors would more often trust their readers to flip through the references and notes sections of their books.

“Admittedly, every reader doesn’t flip back to the bibliography to find additional reading material though, and Lynch’s expositions of his myriad of examples do add a great deal of interesting information to the book. It may be that my impatience has more to do with that I can’t stand not knowing how a story ends—in this case, the story of the English language—so the intimate, but not strictly necessary, details I typically like to save for a second read-through.”

“Why does it not surprise me at all to discover that the first grammar text books were the result of middle-class anxiety? I realize that my prescriptivist (someone who believes in regulating language) leanings make me a card carrying member of the bourgeoisie. But I’m only a prescriptivist to the extent that I want to protect the language from changes that destroy clarity and nuance. I’m not unsettled by change in itself but by changes that make it more difficult for speakers to communicate subtleties of meaning. I’m a bit of a descriptivist (someone who believes only in describing language as it is actually used, not in preserving it in its current form) as well.

“That brings up the question: should I allow my future children to use the word ain’t? Would I be doing them more of a disservice by allowing the use of substandard words or by limiting their vocabulary? I think it comes down to the difference between a word being inherently bad and merely being inappropriate for a certain context. For example, if my child says the word ain’t in his first job interview, he’s probably not going to get the job. Ain’t should be relegated to the list of words saved for casual situations, not because it’s inherently bad, but because it’s inappropriate in some circumstances.

“When I daydream about the children I’ll have, I often wonder, with a certain amount of dismay, how I’m going to teach them about language, about the complexities of a simple word like ain’t. I consider what techniques I can employ to turn them into voracious readers and thinkers. I wonder because I almost wasn’t a reader and a thinker and have always been the least voracious bookworm in my family (I did, however, shock my friends with stories of how much nerdier my family was compared to myself. My classmates were convinced that my parents drank tea from a cup with a saucer, read the encyclopedia for fun, and spoke with English accents). I started reading avidly for three reasons: I discovered that fiction was often much more interesting than my real life; I wanted to prove to everyone how smart I was through the number of books I could finish in a week; and I developed this little voice at the back of my head that told me to learn everything and doubt everything, a little voice that sounded suspiciously like my mother. In other words, sparking my love of language was the happy accident of my shortcomings. I’m not sure that’s how I want my children to come to learn and love language, though. My only plan thus far is to surround them with an obstacle course of book stacks and hope for the best.”

“Lynch briefly discusses in The Lexicographer’s Dilemma how many scholars of English objected to the idea of a government institution with the purpose of regulating language on the basis that the freedom-loving culture of English speaking peoples would never bend to the yoke of such a master. I can see in the ongoing, perhaps eternal, prescriptivist-descriptivist war a parallel to the tension that has always been an integral part of our society, the tension between accepted moral standards and personal freedoms. There are prescriptivists of culture, those who wish to maintain a set of regulations in order to preserve a certain way of life; and descriptivists of culture, those who don’t wish to comment as to whether one way of life is better than another and don’t wish to hamper the culture of others. I often feel as if I’m trying to balance all aspects of my life between two similar concepts.

“The prescriptivist in me often wins out in the end. Ain’t originated as a completely legitimate contraction of am and not, or amn’t. Today, however, it’s used for first, second, and third person, singular or plural, and I feel that’s sad. The use of ain’t takes away from the language’s clarity. And to that lack of clarity, rather than to the word itself, I must object.”

“Perhaps the desire to stunt the growth of language stems from the desire for immortality. The language that I write in could completely die out. If somebody looks back at my blog posts a thousand years from now the same way high school students look at Chaucer in its original Middle English, my attempt to contribute to posterity will ultimately fall short. I can’t imagine that it’s a potentiality many writers would like to contemplate.

“This is especially true in terms of poetry. Even though I was able to understand the plot of Beowulf, thanks to Seamus Heaney’s translation, the poetry of it, the musicality that it held for its original recipients, is lost on me. An epic poem in Old English, a predecessor of my own language, had to be translated so that I could understand even the surface of its meaning. Not only is Old English practically a foreign tongue to me, it’s an obsolete foreign tongue. And so if history really does repeat itself, then in a thousand years, no one is going to translate Modern English into Future English so that people can read my blog posts or my poems.

“So why write, if not for posterity? I think I have to write for myself, first. I have to learn to tell myself the truth with all the nuance and clarity I can before I ‘m able to start writing well for others. Then I have to write for the people I know, here and now. Yes, the individual seems so small in the great course of history, even literary history, but as a writer I know I must insist that whatever variation of language people speak shouldn’t determine their importance in history.”

Rachel Castleberg

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