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?

 

Different ways of speaking

Have you ever had difficulty understanding someone because of their accent? As the above clips demonstrates, even the wonderful Stephen Fry has run into this problem. And it makes sense. If a person speaks in a way that you’re not used to hearing, it can be hard to comprehend at first. But does the way that someone sounds affect your perception of that person?

Last week, CBC Radio One’s The Current aired a fascinating segment on discrimination based on accents, also known as “accentism.” The segment referred to a recent study from Manchester University that found a person’s accent can affect how they are viewed by others. Experts mentioned how some people go to great lengths to hide their accents in order to fit in.
The discussion on The Current reminded me of an episode of the British panel show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry.
The talk about accents starts around the 1:35 mark, when Fry asks the panel what an average World War II fighter pilot would sound like. Because of the portrayal by actors in films, Fry explains, it’s commonly thought that most of these pilots were posh, but this wasn’t actually the case. At 4:15 in the clip, the panel discusses how modern-day pilots may alter the way they speak to mimic an accent that is perceived as more reassuring to passengers.
The more familiar we are with different ways of speaking, the better we will be able to understand other accents. Exposure is key. Living in a multicultural environment can be helpful, as can listening to and watching programs from other cultures. But, in the meantime, if you find yourself in a situation where someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying, you might want to try singing to them instead.