The Lexicographer's Dilemma

The Lexicographer's Dilemma

The Evolution of "proper" English, From Shakespeare to South Park

Book - 2009
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In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers--those who have tried to regulate or otherwise organize the way we speak. The Lexicographer's Dilemma offers the first narrative history of these endeavors and shows clearly that what we now regard as the only "correct" way to speak emerged out of specific historical and social conditions over the course of centuries. As historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history and the characters peopling his narrativeare as interesting for their obsession as for their erudition: the sharp-tongued satirist Jonathan Swift, who called for a government-sponsored academy to issue rulings on the language; the polymath Samuel Johnson, who put dictionaries on a new footing; the eccentric Hebraist Robert Lowth, the first modern to understand the workings of biblical poetry; the crackpot linguist John Horne Tooke, whose bizarre theories continue to baffle scholars; the chemist and theologian Joseph Priestly, whose political radicalism prompted violent riots; the ever-crotchety Noah Webster, who worked to Americanize the English language; the long-bearded lexicographer James A. H. Murray, who devoted his life to a survey of the entire language in the Oxford English Dictionary; and the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who worked without success to make English spelling rational.

Grammatical "rules" or "laws" are not like the law of gravity, or even laws against murder and theft--they're more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change. Witty, smart, full of passion for the world's language, The Lexicograher's Dilemma will entertain and educate in equal measure.

Publisher: New York : Walker & Co., 2009
Edition: First U.S. edition
ISBN: 9780802717009
Branch Call Number: 423.028 Ly
Description: viii, 326 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm


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This book has calmed me down and got me off the grammar wagon. Now that I understand the evolution of some of our English idiosyncrasies I let some of the mistakes go... it just depends on what generation you live in, or what era.

Jul 19, 2011

Overall I quite enjoyed this book, but the writing is oddly uneven from chapter to chapter. Some are spellbinding, real page-turners with the people described seeming very real; others are quite stodgy and a bit "chewy" to get through. The overall subject is quite intriquing (to logophiles, anyway!), and even the slow bits carry their weight so far as background to the more interesting parts.

kellswitch Jun 01, 2011

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. History is my favorite topic and I love books that not only teach me about the topic it's based on, but about connected things and issues and the world and times in which they happened. This book does this many times over.
I knew some of the historical facts mentioned and highlighted in this book, but I had never seen them in this context before and made me see and understand things in a new way, there were many ah ha! and now I see! moments through out this book.

It is well written in an easy to follow and understand way, you don't need to be an expert in language or study it's usage to learn from and enjoy this book, it is highly accessible to anyone interested in words and language.

BPLNextBestAdults May 31, 2011

I am not an English major nor a person claiming to even be engaged in such matters as English correctness; however, I loved this book. Jack Lynch’s, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, gives the history of why our language is so confusing and why it is so difficult to master. For someone who has struggled with proper English my entire life I felt justified in my convictions that English is a mess and finally understood how it became that way. For those that are fans of English, it gives historical highlights of great achievements in the language from the development of Oxford English and Webster’s dictionaries to grammarians Priestly, Lowth and Murray to Carlin’s profanity busting antics. If you are intrigued with understanding the meanings of mobile vulgus, caesar shift or swive, or if you are just confused about written English like I am, you may want take a gander at this title. You may also want to throw your hat into the descriptivist or prescriptivist camp; either way, clarity and precision are guaranteed.

ser_library Nov 21, 2010

one message but fairly well written and a good introduction to lexicography

Apr 05, 2010

I highly recommend this book! Insightful look at the English language and how we started to become concerned with "proper English" only about 300-400 years ago. Jack Lynch has a very readable style and is very funny. I like his balanced view on the state of language change.


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