The Lexicographer’s Dilemma shows us English is a beautiful mess

What I read

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

What it’s about

This book examines how the English-speaking world has arrived at an idea of what “correct” English looks like. Lynch demonstrates that we shouldn’t be so concerned about using English correctly but rather we should be concerned about using English appropriately. And what’s appropriate can change depending on circumstances.

As Lynch takes us through the history of modern English, he provides lots of fascinating information on key figures (Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Peter Mark Roget, to name a few). Central to the book is the question of whether dictionaries should be prescriptive or descriptive, and Lynch explains the different views some of these key figures had regarding this.

How I got my hands on it

This Christmas I received some nice books and bookish gifts. This book was one of those gifts, and it was tucked neatly into my stocking. I can’t say for sure who it put it there, but I have a strong suspicion (Santa, of course).

A bit that I really liked

As much as I enjoyed reading about Johnson and the story of how this unlikely character created one of the most famous English dictionaries—I mean, I visited the house in London where he worked on A Dictionary of the English Language, so I’m a bit of a fan—the section on John Dryden stands out just a bit more for me. I’ve finally figured out who I can blame for this nonsense about not ending a sentence with a preposition and this BS about it being wrong to split an infinitive! Dryden was trying to make English follow the rules of Latin, but English isn’t Latin, guys.

Bonus bit: I got a real kick out of Lynch talking about people having issues with abbreviations in texts or social media. Don’t like it when people use “IMHO” or “obvs”? Well, then surely you must never say “AKA” or “fridge” or “exam” or “phone,” right? Thank you, Mr. Lynch, for pointing out this hypocrisy. It made me smile.

You’ll want to read it if…

You’ll probably like this book if you are any kind of word nerd. Proofreaders, editors, writers, people who read the dictionary for fun—you will love this book. But if you’re looking for a book that’s going to back up your rigid views on how the English language should work, you might not enjoy reading this. It will probably show you how silly you are being. I mean, I think it would be good for you to read it, but you might not want to.

Recommended refreshments

Any reading session is more enjoyable with snacks and drinks. For The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, I recommend consuming copious amounts of tea, and not just because tea and books always go well together. Rather, I suggest you drink this tea in honour of Samuel Johnson, as he was known to consume several cups a day. Imagine how many pots he must have gone through working on that dictionary! So, yes, tea is appropriate. And also maybe a bowl of alphabet soup?



3 thoughts on “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma shows us English is a beautiful mess

  1. You made me think more about my reactions to the changes in language over time. For example, I wonder if I should be a stickler about people who say, “I’ll send you an invite.” I say to them, “Don’t send me a verb; send me a noun. I will respond to an invitation.” Half in jest, you understand. Maybe this is just another example of the evolution of language like “phone” and “fridge” (which I do use, and there’s nothing wrong with this sort of language evolution)? It bugs me because “invite” exists as another part of speech and “invitation” is a perfectly suitable word for what the person means. However, we have similar examples with “run,” “call,” “post,” and many more. (Today, I will run. Today, I will go for a run. I will call you. I will take this call. I’m going to post this to her blog. I enjoyed today’s post.) Maybe “invite” will morph into both verb and noun — or perhaps it has already and I should stop resisting!

    • Hi, Linda! Yes. Using verbs as nouns and vice versa is something Lynch mentions in this book as well.

      We each have our own bugbears, I suppose, but we can’t stop language from changing. Therefore, while you might become more accepting of “invite” used as a noun, I have a feeling you’ll never use it that way yourself. 🙂

  2. Glad you enjoyed the black tea, Nicky. I think Shakespeare was an example of someone who pushed the boundaries of language creatively, and some of his innovations stuck. There is a balance between adopting and recognizing new terms, and having a good framework for usage. I like reading something that has a nice flow, where the writing doesn’t feel self-conscious. I’m having to deliver more journalism these days. A structure sometimes helps. In the best cases, once you’ve mulled over the ideas, the piece will write itself. That’s rare but kind of a religious experience when it happens.

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