Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Language Cops

My dad was a lexicographical reactionary. He fought the good fight against bastardization, and railed indignantly about "wrong" usage (the phrase "very unique" could make him downright apoplectic). And he was hardly alone. We all know language cops, or read their sputterings (that's not a word, by the way, so I've just raised the blood pressure of a certain portion of my readership) in books and in the media.

But the thing is: they're all nuts, if you'll think about it (sorry, dad!). Language simply is. It bastardizes, it has always bastardized, and it's inherently flexible enough to accommodate an ever widening field of expression. And that widening has no sanctioning authority. Language is no more controllable than thought. No one owns language; the ivory tower has no more claim on it than it does on, say, economics. As in that field, the role of academics is not to dictate (i.e. tell everyone how to spend and save) but to observe, hoping to understand the natural process of things. Descriptivism rather than prescriptivism.

Ages have passed since prescriptivism was acknowledged by professional lexicographers to be peeing into the wind at best - and bald-faced snobbery at worst. Yet we still expect dictionary editors to be crusty old fuds who'd sternly point bony fingers at our sloppy, careless, wrong-wrong-wrong use of language. The stereotype stems in large part from the work of uber-prescriptivist H. W. Fowler, who presumed to not only catalog language patterns he disdained, but to impose his predilections as a firm standard for the rest of us (split infinitives strictly intentional!). And generations of readers and writers hewed to his command. Prescriptivees, if you will (though a few of you emphatically won't).

Have a look at how latter day dictionary editors view Fowler and his spawn, via this classic review of "The New Fowler's Modern English Usage" in the Atlantic by Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. It's akin to a booster shot for staving off artificial constraint of one's self-expression.

Years ago, long before that review was published, I called Jesse (who I knew from beer geek circles) to ask whether a certain formulation I'd come up with was an actual word. He clucked his tongue and shot back "Anything you say or write, which clearly conveys whatever you, a native speaker, intend to express, is a word". I'd never use that liberty to excuse lazy, unclear writing. But if the editor of the OED gives you free reign, that's as liberating as Fowler's injunctions once were hindering!

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