Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle)'s Reviews > The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park

The Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack Lynch
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's review
Nov 24, 09

it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction, first-reads
Read in November, 2009

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 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. Every generation worries that the one coming up behind them is going to hell in a handbasket--and taking the English language with it. I admit, I'm a language prude. I wince at text-speak, I
rave madly when someone uses a word or phrase incorrectly, at least, incorrectly to my thinking; I try not to leave participles dangling or split my infinitives. The lesson of this book, however, is that English is a mutable language. It can be used, or abused, in the most extreme fashion, yet it will always bounce back and remain steady, if not always comprehensible to the elder generation. So, the lesson I've learned is that I, and all others who bemoan the imminent demise of English, should just chillax (a slang word I would have never deemed worth using before this point). I can't say I'll ever go out of my way to use split infinitives, dangling participles, or double (or triple or even quadruple) negatives. However, knowing that all of these grammatical "errors" have pedigreed pasts, going back to Shakespeare and Chaucer (who appears to be a master of the quadruple negative), I won't feel as though I'm committing a capital offense if one happens to slip into my writing or conversation. Even the dreaded ain't has a place in this world. English has the near-miraculous ability to be combined in almost infinite ways to create new words. Those words may only be one-offs, created as literary puns or linguistic exercises; they may end up as dictionary staples. The point is, English is flexible and fun. We can rail against its quirks, its bizarre spellings which don't match pronunciations, or, conversely, too many spellings which match a single pronunciation, but without its inherent freedom of expression, we would be lost without it.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst Whoa. It's writing like this that makes me wonder how I got good grades in English Comp. You totally put me to shame. You sure do write good, yes'm, ya do. (That last sentence was said in a dopey Southern accent, in case you couldn't figure it out. ;P)

I still remember learning in, I believe, Sociology that there isn't a right or wrong way to speak or write or whatever, it's just different. But of course, people made up these "rules" and we're supposed to follow them for some unfathomable reason, otherwise it's not "proper". Whatever the heck that means. Sure, I'd rather hear a well worded sentence, but ever since that class I look at things differently. Ahh, isn't it nice to be an enlightened being? LOL j/k Though I still refuse to say chillax, I just don't like the word. You ever seen Do You Speak American? It's pretty interesting.

Hope you planned on putting this up at Amazon, it really is a very good review. :)

Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle) Aw, you're making me blush! Thank you for the lovely compliments. Hey, you don't have to shame yourself to praise me; you do a fine job, yessiree bob, you shore do. (See, I can do the dopey Southern accent, too! ;D)

That's the interesting thing about this book: It lays out where and when these arbitrary rules came into being and why the people proposing them or enforcing them were so gung-ho about it. Some of the info I already knew, but the way he wrote about it made me look at it from a different perspective. The pedigree of "bad" English and "bad" grammar is amazing. Believe me, that was the first and last time I will ever use the word chillax; I think it's a horrible word, but I wanted to illustrate my particular linguistic enlightenment (I'm ready for my halo now ;P). I actually taped Do You Speak American? (although it's pretty useless to me as my VCR is no longer hooked up) because I thought it was quite interesting. I'm such a geek about language and its history, I enjoy most programs and books on the subject.

I had been thinking about putting this and a few other of my reviews on Amazon, but now that I have your glowing approval, I definitely will. :D

message 3: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst Doh! That's what I forgot, shore instead of sure. I knew something looked wrong. ;P *spp* I didn't actually need a compliment back, but thank you anyways. :D You're welcome.

Maybe I'll check the book out sometime, but it'll have to wait when my brain kicks in. :) Chillax truly is a horrible word. There are other, better, slang words that I don't mind. So do you have your wings too? ;D

Good, help some poor Amazonians out. ;P I've kicked myself into gear with some Amazon Vine reviews. I was too chicken to put one of them up GR because the author is pretty active here. While she seems rather level-headed about critical reviews (she gave a yes, "like this review" on a three-star rating of one of her own books), but I don't know, I just feel weird, and like I said, I'm yellow. :D One of these days I may just get a backbone. :|

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