An American Editor

February 12, 2010

On Books: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

Sometimes an author hits it just right, that meld of scholarly and popular writing styles. I admit that I am interested in the English language, after all, I earn my livelihood as an editor. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy slogging through a dry tome on language.

Jack Lynch, a professor of English at Rutgers University, has published a marvelous work about English: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English from Shakespeare to South Park (2009). It melds well scholarly and popular writing styles.

Lynch traces the history of the attempts to regulate English. English unlike, for example, French, does not have an academy of scholars who determine what is and isn’t proper English. So the history of English is more diverse and richer; it is the language of descriptivists rather than prescriptivists.

Early modern writers, by which I mean writers like Jonathan Swift and John Dryden, wanted a government-sponsored academy whose function it was to determine proper grammar and spelling to govern all writing. Why? Because they were afraid of obscurity. They looked back a mere 100 to 200 years to the writings of Shakespeare and Chaucer and realized that readers had a decreasing ability to understand Shakespeare and Chaucer, and feared that no one would understand their own writings 100 years in the future — all because of the swift changes that occurred in everyday English.

Thus Swift fell into the prescriptivist camp. When Samuel Johnson began work on his dictionary, his sometime sponsor, Lord Chesterfield, expected him to be a dictator of language, a prescriptivist. In the end, Johnson was a descriptivist, describing how past and contemporary writers used words, garnering their meaning from usage and quoting extensively from past authors’ writings. Johnson’s falling into the descriptivist camp became the foundation standard for subsequent dictionaries, including the ever-famous Oxford English Dictionary.

Lynch takes us on a tour of these trends in English and introduces us to many of the people whose views, even if not adopted, were influential in creating the living language of English. For example, we meet George Bernard Shaw who unsuccessfully tried to bring some rational basis to the spelling of English words, and Noah Webster, who Americanized English as an act of patriotism.

Lynch also explores the naturalization of words, for example, the Greek philospohia, the French ricochet, the German Kindergarten, and the Yiddish beygel, each of which has become a standard English word, albeit with some spelling changes in some cases. And this trend to naturalize continues. Consider the current status of the Russian glasnost, the Arabic jihad, and the Spanish bodega. All are now part of the English lexicon.

Lynch also explores the attempts to control the lexicon. One example is McJob whose 2003 appearance in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary set sparks flying with an angry letter from McDonalds.

Of course, Lynch doesn’t ignore the “rules of grammar,” such as not ending a sentence with a preposition and not splitting an infinitive (according to Lynch, Charles Dickens often ended sentences with a preposition and Mark Twain never split an infinitive). Lynch points to Latin and Greek as the origins of the “no splitting infinitives” rule, noting that it was impossible to split a Latin or Greek infinitive because — unlike English — infinitives were single words in Greek and Latin. For example, the English to love is amare in Latin and philein in Greek. In Old English, the infinitive was also usually a single word ending in an as in lufian (the origin of our modern to love).

If you have any interest in English the language, Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is a must read. It is short (326 pages including notes and index), particularly well written, and full of fascinating information about why English is as unruly as it is. It is available as both a print book and an ebook.



  1. Dear American Editor,
    Although you most likely are an excellent editor, linking to your web page with a typo in the link does make one wonder about the quality of your work. At least, this is the kind of thing you are supposed to fix for other people I believe 😉
    (you link to, with the ‘a’ and ‘l’ switched)


    Comment by Jelle Veraa — February 14, 2010 @ 10:41 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the catch. The things that are absolutely certain about editing are that it is very difficult to edit one’s own work — you see what you expect to see — and that it is the very rare piece that is so perfect that another set of eyes can’t find something to correct.

      One other truism — at least about me — is that I am not a typist :).


      Comment by americaneditor — February 15, 2010 @ 2:04 pm | Reply

  2. Samuel Johnson had very definite opinions about the words he included in his dictionary, and although he used quotations to demonstrate usage — one of the reasons you see him as a descriptivist — he did not refrain from declaring words he disliked as “low” and “ought not to be admitted into the language,” for example. See Lynda Mugglestone, Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary, p.7.


    Comment by Esther Hecht — March 12, 2010 @ 3:30 am | Reply

  3. […] 775 pages; it lists for $40. It also isn’t lively reading. Unlike a previously reviewed book, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, the writing style is relatively dry. But this book is packed with information about books in the […]


    Pingback by On Books: The Nature of the Book « An American Editor — June 12, 2010 @ 11:35 am | Reply

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