Paul Fidalgo'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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Jan 09, 2010

really liked it
Read from May 24 to June 14, 2011

Jack Lynch's fascinating book, The Lexicographer's Dilemma, is full of original insights, refreshing perspective, and delightful trivia about our mother tongue. It spans 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 sternly than others, but on the whole, the language is an ever-evolving, gelatinous swarm of words, idioms, and ideas. Lynch would have it no other way, and has little regard for those prescriptivists who attempt to nail it down.

[Note: this review was originally published at my blog, Near-Earth(dot)com. Visit, won't you?]

To give an idea of the book's overall theme, see Lynch's take on the word/non-word "ain't," which he describes as...
. . . the most stigmatized word in the language . . . [which] every five-year-old is taught is not a word. But why not? Just because. It originally entered the language as a contracted form of am not (passing through a phase as an’t before the a sound was lengthened) and first appeared in print in 1778, in Frances Burney’s novel Evelina. We have uncontroversial contractions for is not (isn’t) and are not (aren’t), so what’s wrong with reducing am not to ain’t? The problem is that it was marked as a substandard word in the nineteenth century, people have been repeating the injunction ever since, and no amount of logic can undo it. It’s forbidden simply because it’s been forbidden.

You see where he's coming from. We can so easily take for granted notions of what words are "real" and which are not (I am more guilty of this kind of parsing than most), forgetting that the real arbiters of these disputes are not thick books of alphabetically arranged terms, nor English text books, but actual human beings using those words. We don't fault Shakespeare, for example, for inventing new words -- whether they were based on existing words, or made from whole cloth -- in fact, the earliest lexicographers used great writers such as Shakespeare as the starting point for what was and was not an English word. But any such effort made before Shakespeare would have missed his substantial contributions.

So what other kinds of words tend to get nudged out of "proper" or "official" English? It can be pretty surprising when one considers what gets to stick around. For example. it makes perfect sense that newer words like "blog" or even the latest sense of the word "tweet" should be given general lexicographical approval, but what about words based entirely on error -- not on some creative use of language? I'm thinking, of course, of the recent decision of the folks of the Oxford English Dictionary to give "word of the year" credence to Sarah Palin's "refudiate," a word muddled entirely from her ignorance of the word's two roots. If a "wrong" word falls into common use by millions, that's one thing. When a narcissistic anti-intellectual mob-inciter like Palin screws something up, I have trouble understanding why that should be given any credibility, even if it is half-tongue-in-cheek.

Another example of those terms that are real English words in the sense that Anglophones use them, but don't get dictionary codification because of their arcaneness in the eyes and ears of the general populace: scientific terms. Lynch again:
. . . if including everything scientific is impossible, so is excluding everything scientific. Everyone recognizes the need to include some scientific words like fruit fly, koala, carbon, and salt. But why should a lexicographer include daffodil and atom but omit brasolaeliocattleya (a kind of orchid) and graviscalar bosons (theoretical subatomic particles)? There’s no difference in the character of the words, only in the familiarity of the things they identify. If some future technological breakthrough makes us all familiar with graviscalar bosons, they’ll eventually show up in the major general dictionaries. Until then, they have to remain in the language’s antechamber.

I'm pulling for graviscalar bosons. I see no reason why it shouldn't be in general use, if for no reason than that it's a delight to say. Try it.

But, like "ain't," some words are beyond the language's antechamber and instead find themselves in the house's hidden dungeon. These are of course our "dirty words." The origin of the concept of utterly-unacceptable words may surprise you, and be especially enlightening to my atheist readership:
The notion that particular words are taboo can probably be traced back to primitive beliefs about sympathetic magic, in which language can be used to injure people at a distance. It’s telling that many of our unseemly words are known as curses, since the conception of offensive language seems to have derived from a belief in the power of a malefactor to place a curse on an enemy.

So not only are "curse words" arbitrary and, on the whole, harmless in and of themselves, but their supposed power derives from notions of the supernatural, as though uttering them could do actual physical or spiritual damage. Makes the case for their enfranchisement even stronger, as no one will be made mysteriously ill or forced to reincarnate as a dung beetle by my typing the word "fuck."

Of late, there may be no one who better illustrates -- through written and verbal usage -- the delightfully changeable nature of language than humorist Stephen Fry, who wrote a few years ago in an ever-relevant essay:
Convention exists, of course it does, but convention is no more a register of rightness or wrongness than etiquette is, it’s just another way of saying usage: convention is a privately agreed usage rather than a publicly evolving one. Conventions alter too, like life. . . . Imagine if we all spoke the same language, fabulous as it is, as Dickens? Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it.

If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be.

But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright.

This being so, we should make better use of this birthright. Embrace the changes, relish the experimentation, the creative truncations, the inventions, and at the same time, educate yourself. Learn the words that are unfamiliar. You can't do Jackson Pollock-type abstract painting until you learn to reproduce the works of the impressionists. You can't do improvisational jazz until you have mastered, note for note, the classical works of centuries past. Likewise, don't presume to change the language until you are sufficiently familiar with it that your creativity means something -- be aware of what you and those around you are doing to the language hundreds of millions of us share. And as Fry says, in this, find pleasure.
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