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Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage - Still Topical

Posted: 05/02/2013 16:39

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Professor David Crystal is the bearded God of language, particularly the English language. With over 100 books to his name, he has been prolific both in writing and editing. Crystal has produced series of encyclopedias with Cambridge University Press and Penguin and is the author of the brilliant Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.

Recently, he has seen the publication of the classic first edition of Henry Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Fowler's Dictionary, as it is widely called, was first published in 1926. It was and still is one of the most influential and authoritative books on modern English usage. Sir Ernest Gowers later edited the 1965 version. In 1996 an Oxford English Dictionary editor published the 3rd edition with considerable input of his own on entries. And now for the first time since its first appearance, Fowler's influential Dictionary is published true to the original, introduced by David Crystal. Crystal provides an invaluable introduction to the Dictionary as well as notes on 300 entries where Fowler's suggestions on usage contradict the actual practice prevalent then or now.

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Fowler's credit as a lexicographer is paramount, Crystal notes. Many of the entries are very accurate and learned and provide a true picture of the linguistic scenario of the time. Yet despite the objective observational rationale of a skilful linguist, Fowler's own background of Latin-minded education oft trips him into the prescriptive trap. Hence, alongside objective observations of language usage he often slips into "prescriptive commands" or asserts a personal like or dislike. Fowler's sentiments are sometimes amusing, like at Feminine Designations ("...an author is an author, that is all that concerns any reader, & it is impertinent curiosity to want to know whether the author is male or female"). In other places, the lexicographer's statements may sound bizarre, like the inclusion of the article Superfluous Words (There are superfluous words for a linguist?). There is inconsistency in the length of entries - some are short, some moderate, some tiringly long and hoarded with many examples of actual usage; others are reduced to a very brief comment on the pronunciation or spelling only, like coquette, manikin.

The Dictionary on the whole speaks about the extraordinary skill and expertise of Fowler as a lexicographer and linguist. A thing about the Dictionary that endears most perhaps is the author's genuine enthusiasm. Whilst a dictionary, it is expected, should expose the actual usage in a formal and objective manner, it is nonetheless a pleasure to read through the entries which reveal the author's strong feelings. At times Fowler can be even offensive, like in "The above writers are bogy-haunted creatures..." at Split Infinitive. His contemporaries might not have been amused by or self-conscious of the subjectivity factor and taken much for granted - but the Dictionary is truly one deserving huge appreciation.

Thanks to David Crystal, we can now thumb through this lexicographic landmark, in its virgin form, to appreciate its influence and how it shaped attitudes over decades. Crystal is one of the rare people to have read the entire Dictionary and his opinion and estimation of Fowler's iconic heritage is subsequently invaluable.

Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the classic first edition, can be obtained from the Oxford University Press shop as well as other stores.

 

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