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

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

 

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

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 Lexicographers 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 Lynchs 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—theyre more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change. Charting the evolution of English, Jack Lynch puts todays 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.

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 Johnsons Dictionary and the author of Samuel Johnsons Insults and Becoming Shakespeare. He lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
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 Lexicographers 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 Lynchs 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—theyre more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change. Charting the evolution of English, Jack Lynch puts todays 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 employed today.

"This delightful look at efforts through the centuries to define and control the English language turns out to be a history of human exasperation, frustration and free-floating angst. People tend to go nuts around the English language. Of course, most of us are nuts anyway, but the language is always there, in the ether, or staring at us from a page, and if we're feeling particularly cranky, it never fails to provide a ready excuse for us to fly off the handle. I get afflicted with that crankiness when a television anchor describes a Chihuahua rescued from drowning as 'very unique,' or a woman I scarcely know pronounces 'forte' as 'fortay,' or when a close relative of mine, when she descended (with enthusiasm!) into the life of the underworld, began to say, 'He don't.' I wanted to tell her, 'Commit any crime you like. Just don't murder the language while you're at it!' . . . Jack Lynch, who also has written on Shakespeare and edited Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, gives us not a history of the English language but a history of those who have tried to make sense of it. He divides them into 'prescriptive' and 'descriptive' linguists: The former try with all their might to purge the language of undesirable words and constructions; the latter, acting on the theory that the language is untamable, simply try to describe its current use . . . After an amusing and very interesting introduction, Lynch begins with John Dryden. (Don't worry: Lynch dutifully goes back later to 1066, the Norman Conquest and the 'marriage' of Anglo-Saxon and French.) But Dryden—famous, esteemed by all (or most, anyway)—was one of the first English writers to revisit his work and revise it in accordance with certain rules of Latin grammar. One of the reasons this book is so much fun is that you get to see how relatively new and recent and lively modern English is. At the end of the 17th century, Latin grammarians were just becoming influential in English society. The English language itself didn't have a formal grammar, but Latin did, and it seemed sensible to think that the rules of this revered dead language might easily be applied to bumptious, wildly growing, very-much-alive English. Dryden set about lopping prepositions off the ends of his sentences (they're not called prepositions for nothing!) and spent time sticking his split infinitives back together. The idea of 'good' English as opposed to 'bad' was coming into play. This, Lynch says, had to do with the rise of the middle class—a set of interlopers who had had the luck and nerve to earn some money, and thus aspired to fake their way into the outer realms of the ruling elite. One of the necessary tools for this was knowledge of how the language was spoken and written by those who lived at the top. For those who have taken their share of English classes, all this material might seem familiar, but that doesn't diminish the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Swift, in the 18th century, being driven ape-crazy by the use of contractions like 'wouldn't' and trendy abbreviations like 'mob' for the Latin "mobile vulgus" (fickle crowd) . . . After Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, which, although certainly opinionated, was largely descriptive, there arose those pesky, prescriptive Latin grammarians who did everything they could to hammer English into a Latin mold. Then, when the American Revolution came along, a patriot named Noah Webster compiled a uniquely American dictionary, taking the opportunity to thumb his nose at Johnson in the process. Then came the long decades in which a group of dedicated scholars labored to put together the Oxford English Dictionary. The first installment appeared in 1884, the last in 1928. A lot of very learned people got sick and died during the execution of this valiant project, and as soon as it was finished—sooner, even—it required extensive revision. And more revision. And then came the hordes of people with nothing better to do with their lives than to carp about the differences between 'who' and 'whom' and a mountain of split infinitives, because the language, besides providing a convenient subject to be enraged at, also offered a refuge for otherwise unemployable cranks. The unseemly squabbling never lets up, actually. The author revisits the tempest in a teapot that recently surrounded the teaching of ebonics in the Oakland, California, school system. (The critics went out of their way to be both racist and smug.) And before that, there was the scorn heaped upon the editor of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, a man who thought it helpful to include words that people were using by the dawn of the '60s, like 'hipster' and 'drip-dry.' Scholars went berserk, of course."—Carolyn See, The Washington Post

"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

"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

Synopsis:

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 poses a pair of questions—what does proper English mean, and who gets to say what's right? Our ideas of correct or proper English have a history, and today's debates over the state of the language—whether about Ebonics in schools, the unique use of language in a South Park episode, or split infinitives in the Times—make sense only in historical context. As historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history, and the characters who populate his narrative are as interesting for their obsessions as for their erudition. Charting the evolution of English with wit and intelligence, he provides a rich historical perspective that makes us appreciate a new the hard-won standards we now enjoy.

Synopsis:

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. 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. 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 employed today. This delightful look at efforts through the centuries to define and control the English language turns out to be a history of human exasperation, frustration and free-floating angst. People tend to go nuts around the English language. Of course, most of us are nuts anyway, but the language is always there, in the ether, or staring at us from a page, and if we're feeling particularly cranky, it never fails to provide a ready excuse for us to fly off the handle. I get afflicted with that crankiness when a television anchor describes a Chihuahua rescued from drowning as 'very unique, ' or a woman I scarcely know pronounces 'forte' as 'fortay, ' or when a close relative of mine, when she descended (with enthusiasm ) into the life of the underworld, began to say, 'He don't.' I wanted to tell her, 'Commit any crime you like. Just don't murder the language while you're at it ' . . . Jack Lynch, who also has written on Shakespeare and edited Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, gives us not a history of the English language but a history of those who have tried to make sense of it. He divides them into 'prescriptive' and 'descriptive' linguists: The former try with all their might to purge the language of undesirable words and constructions; the latter, acting on the theory that the language is untamable, simply try to describe its current use . . . After an amusing and very interesting introduction, Lynch begins with John Dryden. (Don't worry: Lynch dutifully goes back later to 1066, the Norman Conquest and the 'marriage' of Anglo-Saxon and French.) But Dryden--famous, esteemed by all (or most, anyway)--was one of the first English writers to revisit his work and revise it in accordance with certain rules of Latin grammar. One of the reasons this book is so much fun is that you get to see how relatively new and recent and lively modern English is. At the end of the 17th century, Latin grammarians were just becoming influential in English society. The English language itself didn't have a formal grammar, but Latin did, and it seemed sensible to think that the rules of this revered dead language might easily be ap

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 Johnsons Dictionary and the author of Samuel Johnsons Insults and Becoming Shakespeare. He lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780802717009
Author:
Lynch, Jack
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Author:
Lynch, Jack W.
Author:
Jack W. Lynch, II
Author:
Lynch, Jack W., II
Subject:
Grammar & Punctuation
Subject:
Etymology
Subject:
English language -- Style.
Subject:
English language -- Usage.
Subject:
Dictionaries - General
Subject:
Linguistics - Etymology
Subject:
Grammar
Subject:
Reference-Etymology
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
The Evolution of 'Pr
Publication Date:
20091031
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
BandW Illustrations throughout
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.50 in

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Linguistics » English Linguistics and Dialects
Reference » Etymology
Reference » Grammar and Style
Reference » Grammar and Usage
Reference » Words Phrases and Language

The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park New Hardcover
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Product details 336 pages Walker & Company - English 9780802717009 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by ,

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 poses a pair of questions—what does proper English mean, and who gets to say what's right? Our ideas of correct or proper English have a history, and today's debates over the state of the language—whether about Ebonics in schools, the unique use of language in a South Park episode, or split infinitives in the Times—make sense only in historical context. As historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history, and the characters who populate his narrative are as interesting for their obsessions as for their erudition. Charting the evolution of English with wit and intelligence, he provides a rich historical perspective that makes us appreciate a new the hard-won standards we now enjoy.

"Synopsis" by , 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. 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. 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 employed today. This delightful look at efforts through the centuries to define and control the English language turns out to be a history of human exasperation, frustration and free-floating angst. People tend to go nuts around the English language. Of course, most of us are nuts anyway, but the language is always there, in the ether, or staring at us from a page, and if we're feeling particularly cranky, it never fails to provide a ready excuse for us to fly off the handle. I get afflicted with that crankiness when a television anchor describes a Chihuahua rescued from drowning as 'very unique, ' or a woman I scarcely know pronounces 'forte' as 'fortay, ' or when a close relative of mine, when she descended (with enthusiasm ) into the life of the underworld, began to say, 'He don't.' I wanted to tell her, 'Commit any crime you like. Just don't murder the language while you're at it ' . . . Jack Lynch, who also has written on Shakespeare and edited Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, gives us not a history of the English language but a history of those who have tried to make sense of it. He divides them into 'prescriptive' and 'descriptive' linguists: The former try with all their might to purge the language of undesirable words and constructions; the latter, acting on the theory that the language is untamable, simply try to describe its current use . . . After an amusing and very interesting introduction, Lynch begins with John Dryden. (Don't worry: Lynch dutifully goes back later to 1066, the Norman Conquest and the 'marriage' of Anglo-Saxon and French.) But Dryden--famous, esteemed by all (or most, anyway)--was one of the first English writers to revisit his work and revise it in accordance with certain rules of Latin grammar. One of the reasons this book is so much fun is that you get to see how relatively new and recent and lively modern English is. At the end of the 17th century, Latin grammarians were just becoming influential in English society. The English language itself didn't have a formal grammar, but Latin did, and it seemed sensible to think that the rules of this revered dead language might easily be ap

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