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

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  378 ratings  ·  100 reviews
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 abou ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published October 26th 2010 by Walker & Company (first published 2009)
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Lolly's Library
Enlightening, enjoyable, entertaining. 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 ...more
David
Audio interview with the author available here.

A good reminder for those of us in the English teaching racket that our awesome pedagogical skills and overwhelming personal charisma are employed in the advancement of an arbitrary set of rules which assembled themselves more or less by accident. That might depress some people, but I find it strangely cheering and liberating.

Chapter 10, about the scandalized mutterings generated by the 1961 release of Webster's Third New International Dictionary,
...more
Andres
As a recovering English major I still have a weakness for language histories and this book sure does hit the language history spot. While not a language history per se, it does trace the history of the ever evolving debate about what is considered proper or improper in the English language. As much a history as a biography, Lynch hits all the big language personalities and topics, from Johnson working on his dictionary up to modern day dictionary wars between Merriam-Webster and the American Her ...more
N.T. Embe
Dec 17, 2011 N.T. Embe rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Readers, Writers, and all lovers of the English Language or language in general!
Recommended to N.T. Embe by: Jack Lynch <3 (Development of the English Language Class)
Shelves: education
So what is this book about? For its fancy appearance and title, its roots are simple: a history and explanation of the English language, and how it works and has worked.

Not too hard to understand. So why the big hype about it? Why do I flaunt and fangirl and rave like a joyous kid who got their dose of candy--and then some!--when I talk about this book? Well, that's because most of the things addressed in this book are RELEVANT and cause the most hubbub today out of countless things going on in
...more
Melody
This book satisfied the word geek in me - I'm eternally researching the etymology of any unique word or trying to decipher how much loyalty to bestow on various grammar "rules". I'm constantly trying to find the balance between being a rule-follower and a free spirit, and it seems that most lexicographers have a similar dilemma. The book was well organized (vital for nonfiction) and written in a clear, entertaining manner. I listened to the audio, but will be buying the print copy to reread in b ...more
Meghan
Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is an entertaining introduction to the history of the “rules” of English language and those that attempted to develop those rules.

The book addresses the arguments of the prescriptive and descriptive linguists in a way that is conversational and anecdotal. Interesting examples are provided from the past as well as the present in a really great attempt to bring this linguistic argument down from the often unavailable rhetoric of academics and into the hand
...more
Christine Wells
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is essentially a history of standard English. Lynch anchors his text in Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth century with fairly frequent allusions to the Renaissance and occasionally to the Middle Ages. Following the development of dictionaries, thesauruses and other linguistically-focused texts intended for the general public, Lynch demonstrates the longevity of the feud between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. [return][return]As one might expect, the prescriptivi ...more
Beth
This book covers some of the problems of English grammar. It deals with a couple of basic questions: 1. What is proper English? and 2. Who decides that?

It introduces the conflict between the prescriptivists, who believe in proper English and think the current usage is a sign of moral decline and the English speaking world going to Hell-in-a-hand-basket, and their opponents, the descriptivists who want to go by how English is currently spoken.

There are chapters on how and why spelling was standar
...more
Ryan Mishap
English is approximately 1500 years old and no one suggested there should be rules for spelling, grammar, or what words one chooses to use until recently. Indeed, until the printing press came along and writing began its conquering march over language, how one spoke was only governed by how everyone spoke--common usage, in effect. Even as writing gained prominence, spelling was left to individuals (and printing shops made their own decisions) and grammar remained organic--until the 18th century. ...more
Shirley
Overall this is an accessible, nontechnical introduction to the history of the (attempted) regulation and evolution of the English language. More like a 3.5-star read. (Could have been four stars, but hard to say because I read most of it sometime between 3 and 5 am during these last weeks of pregnancy...) In the prescriptivist-descriptivist divide in linguistics (where prescriptivists are more, well, prescriptive/rule based and descriptivists lay out - with less judgment - the way language is o ...more
Ami
My friend Adrian wrote a brilliantly concise & astute review that I can't get out of my head when I'm reading, so I'd recommend checking that out too.

An intelligent & fun meander through the history of the English language, and the (mostly) men who attempted to shape it through dictionary-making and other means. The conclusion, however, is that English is shaped by the way its speakers and writers use it, for good or bad. Lynch comes down as a smooth blend of descriptivist (language is a
...more
Adrian
If you have ever railed on about the poor English grammar in the world today- and who hasn't?- this is the book for you. Lynch details the spectacular futility of attempts to reform English spelling and grammar as well as attempts to stop the language from changing. He divides all lexicographers- amateur or professional- into two groups; descriptivists and prescriptivists. The first describe language the second are intent on shaping it. Lynch is a descriptivist which is a little unsettling at fi ...more
Marie
I bounced a little in my chair, silently squeeing as I realized the chapter I was reading was laying the groundwork for the OED and the author was drawing out the reveal just for my own personal delight.

So, if you don't mist up at the thought of Strunk and White, as I did a few chapters later, you might not enjoy this book as thoroughly as I did - but it is still an engaging, fun read. Lynch mixes history with wit and humility to paint a clear picture of our struggle with our own language. My on
...more
Margie
I was a bit surprised by engaging this book is. The book looks at this history of English, with a focus on the tools (spellers, grammars, and dictionaries) developed by either prescriptivists or descriptivists. It was fascinating.
Pancha
A very droll book about the history of English as seen through books about English. Recommended to anyone who works with words, or just loves them.
Linda Benedict
Ever wonder who decided you can't end a sentence with a preposition? Who decided Americans should spell differently from the English? [color, colour, center, centre] Where OK came from? This is the book for you. I found it to be a fun read, even though it's not a subject I have any background in. [Didn't I just end that sentence with a preposition? What a scamp.] It is a series of essays that tells us how the English language has evolved, and became 'regulated'. Though I'm with the Founding Fath ...more
Steven
This is the sort of book I just eat up. And the author takes just the right approach, carefully outlining the development of English spelling and grammar, while reveling in all the variations we English speakers come up with. (And yes, I just ended that sentence with a preposition. Get over it.)

I really enjoyed Lynch's description on the rise of spelling and grammar "normalization" that began in the late 17th century. Before that time, spelling and grammar weren't anything that anyone seemed to
...more
Elizabeth
Nov 03, 2012 Elizabeth marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone who is frustrated with the English language
from the library
Rob is reading this and he read me many tidbits. Delicious.

from the library computer

Table of Contents

Introduction 1 (8)
Vulgarities of Speech

Homo Sapiens Learns to Speak
9 (18)
The Age in Which I Live

John Dryden Revises His Works
27 (22)
Proper Words in Proper Places

Jonathan Swift Demands an Academy
49 (22)
Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind

Samuel Johnson Lays Down the Law
71 (23)
The Art of Using Words Properly

Joseph Priestley Seeks Genuine and Establishe
...more
Martin
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 langua ...more
Alex
Stars: 4.5/5

If you like words--their history, the fights they cause and their creation--then give this book a gander.

The "Average Joe" probably isn't going to willingly pick up this book, although it's written to be easily accessible and enjoyable. And how many books discussing and analyzing the history of English can make that claim? Lynch uses a sense of humor, dry wit, and a balanced perspective in his writing, so that what could be long and tedious is educational and fun.

Yes, fun.

Some parts
...more
Caitlin Marineau
An excellent overview of the history of grammar and lexicography. The book is not so much a history of English grammar, but of the attempts beginning in the 18th century to regulate the language. Prior to this period, no native speaker would have understood the concept of studying grammar (why would they need to study a language they already know?). Once the "grammarians" got involved, however, it was a new game, which has led us to our current state of bizarre, often pointless, rules. Many of t ...more
Gregory
From http://weeksnotice.blogspot.com/2012/...

If you like words and writing, then go read Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park. It is a history of the power of words and how people have struggled to control them. He emphasizes that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and in fact some of the best parts are his descriptions of others' prescriptions. There is no ruler across the knuckles here.

Lynch documents the man
...more
Lori
Most reviewers call this book a history of English. It is actually a history of ‘proper’ or Standard English, the English we are taught in school, the English that people are forever complaining is degenerating into mere babble. It is also good introduction to the battle between descriptive vs. prescriptive English. In a way, this book is a rebuttal to the books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Those of us with more knowledge (like me) may have some com ...more
Paul Fidalgo
Jack Lynch's fascinating book, The Lexicographer's Dilemma, is full of original insights, refreshing perspective, and delightful trivia about our mother tongue. Itspans history and academia to lend understanding to what it means for a word to be considered an "official" part of the English language. The gist, as you might surmise, is that there is no such thing as the official version of the language. Dictionaries and pedants have over the centuries set down guidelines about propriety, some more ...more
Casey
I read The Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack Lynch, which discusses the evolution of the English language, particularly its written form. Beginning with speculation on how language originated, Lynch moves from a discussion of language to the written word. Then came most of the book: a discussion of lexicography and what qualifies as "proper" English. Some of this discussion was, well, quite dull-- I skimmed some pages on the specifics of various accomplishments of hundred year old men. But for the ...more
James Williams
I'm a fan of the English language. I'm not an expert, certainly. This review itself will show that I don't have a deft hand with a pen (or keyboard, as it were) and sometimes it takes a few tries to get the denser works of the masters through my skull. Yet, despite my own mastery of the language, I have a love for well-chosen phrases and the amusing word-play.

Throughout my life, I've moved from being a strict prescriptivist to being a more forgiving descriptivist more times than I can count. I
...more
James
"Words, words, words." - Hamlet.
Thus Hamlet answered Polonius' question as to what he was reading. Our reading can range from the sublimity of Beckett's arid yet vivid prose to the Rabelaisian abundance of words, bordering on the ridiculous, that one finds in books like Infinite Jest. In The Lexicographer's Dilemma, an all too short book considering the subject, Jack Lynch attempts an history of the English language - a history of words. His focus is on what is considered "proper" English and w
...more
Elaine Nelson
If you are a language nerd of any sort, you'll enjoy this book. Lots of weird tidbits about the attempts to wrangle the English language into place beginning with the printing press.

Which, as it turns out, is when consistent spelling actually starts to matter. Also, as it happens, is when there was some sort of huge shift in English pronunciation, so that the written form preserves (kinda) a different English than the one we actually speak. That explains a lot!

Some fascinating characters in her
...more
Johnnie
The best book on the English language that I have yet read. Does a fine job of deconstructing people's assumptions and preconceptions about what makes language work, how people use language, and where the notion of "proper" English comes from (hint: not God). This is a brilliant book that I frequently recommend to people interested in linguistics and the English language. It's filled with fascinating stories and analyses of English's peculiarities that are often very funny.
Grey
For the first time in decades, I "won" something -- one of the free books regularly offered by Goodreads (many thanks).

Just started it, but even the blurb on the back cover is interesting: "For just one third of 1 percent of the history of language in general, and for just 20 percent of the history of our own language, have we had to go to school to study the language that we already speak." (OK -- I'm going to let the numeral "1" slide just this once.)

I care passionately about "good English." J
...more
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Goodreads Librari...: Are ISBN numbers ever different? 7 183 Aug 27, 2012 10:17AM  
  • The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
  • Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
  • The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
  • Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
  • In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language
  • You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity
  • Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts
  • Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn't Know You Didn't Know about Language and Languages
  • The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
  • Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
  • The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention
  • Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages
  • The F-Word
  • A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
  • Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling
  • Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
  • Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms
Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard Samuel Johnson's Dictionary Samuel Johnson's Insults: A Compendium of Snubs, Sneers, Slights and Effronteries from the Eighteenth-Century Master The Missing and The Dead (Bragg #2) The English Language: A User's Guide

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“People of very different opinions--friends who can discuss politics, religion, and sex with perfect civility--are often reduced to red-faced rage when the topic of conversation is the serial comma or an expression like more unique. People who merely roll their eyes at hate crimes feel compelled to write jeremiads on declining standards when a newspaper uses the wrong form of its. Challenge my most cherished beliefs about the place of humankind in God's creation, and while I may not agree with you, I'll fight to the death for your right to say it. But dangle a participle in my presence, and I'll consider you a subliterate cretin no longer worth listening to, a menace to decent society who should be removed from the gene pool before you do any more damage.” 5 likes
“To this day, good English usually means the English wealthy and powerful people spoke a generation or two ago.” 5 likes
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