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The Word

Turning up volumes

New language books for the holiday season

By Jan Freeman
December 6, 2009

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The economic weather may be frightful, but this year’s harvest of usage books is delightful, and surprisingly abundant. Here are some titles that might find a home on your shopping list - or your wish list.

For best results, skip the title of “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma” and go straight to the subtitle: “The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park.” Yes, there are lexicographers in Jack Lynch’s book, but it’s really a history of English peevology, populated by word wranglers as different as John Dryden and George Carlin.

Language nitpicking, says Lynch, is so familiar today that we forget it wasn’t always ubiquitous. Though early scholars worried about the status and adequacy of English, he says, for ordinary people in Shakespeare’s time, “proper English” was simply “what most people do.” Only in the 18th century did nitpicking as we know it take root.

There were social forces at work, of course, but Lynch draws us in by focusing on the individuals who tried, one way and another, to corral and contain the messy language. Here’s Dryden, inventing the rule about not ending sentences with prepositions, then carefully revising his works to obey his rule. Here’s Samuel Johnson, setting out to write a prescriptivist dictionary and ending up a descriptivist.

Noah Webster, proud speaker and compiler of the American language, campaigns successfully for the new spellings color and ax (and unsuccessfully for akers). Richard Grant White, the popular American usagist, declares donate “abominable” and inaugurate “nonsense.” And H.W. Fowler, bucking tradition, defends those sentence-ending prepositions Dryden forswore.

Lynch is no language anarchist - we have to teach the dialect we call Standard English, he says - but he thinks we’ve made our language more chore than pleasure. Showing us the peevologists at work, in all their naked quirkiness, just might make us less eager to accuse one another of ignorance, pretension, and general linguistic mayhem (Walker, $26).

And speaking of H.W. Fowler - he’s back. If you’ve misplaced your copy, or you never managed to snag a first edition, it’s all here: “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition” (Oxford, $29.95) is a bright new reprint of the 1926 favorite. And even if your copy is at your elbow, the introduction and notes by David Crystal shouldn’t be missed.

Crystal sees Fowler walking a linguistic tightrope, balanced like Philippe Petit between the twin towers of traditional prescriptivism and the new scientific approach. And wobbling, too, now and then; like most usagists, Fowler adjusts his principles to suit his preferences, sometimes ignoring etymology, say, and other times insisting on its relevance. And yet, 83 years on, he cuts an attractive figure: “The impression he gives is of an endearingly eccentric, schoolmasterly character, driven at times to exasperation by the infelicities of his wayward pupils, but always wanting the best for them.”

“So You Think You Can Spell?” ask authors David L. Grambs and Ellen S. Levine. I do, I do - and I thought it was probably folly to promise “Killer Quizzes for the Incurably Competitive and Overly Confident” in a print format. Wouldn’t it be too easy? Well, it is easier than an oral spelling bee, but an unfamiliar word in any medium is a puzzler. If you’ve never heard of an ancient portico whose name is pronounced ZIST, the spelling xyst may well elude you. Take this along when you expect a wait for the dentist or the bus (Perigee, $13.95).

Nathan Bierma, a former language columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has collected some of his usage observations in “The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English” (William, James, $17). Eclectic indeed; his subjects include the Great Vowel Shift, the language of Harry Potter, anxious vs. eager, “it is what it is,” and truthiness. Bierma happily answers the traditional usage questions, but at heart he’s a reveler in language variety, not a finger-wagger.

Hey, big spender - spend a little time in the 14th century? For a mere $395, you can have the world’s first historical thesaurus, thanks to Oxford University Press. The two-volume, nearly 4,000-page “Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary” lists groups of words with related meanings, like any thesaurus. But it isn’t limited to current words; under “excited” you’ll find not just torqued and psyched but also upreared (1382), concitated (1652), fermentitious (1807), and thrilly (1893). I don’t know about you, but I’m all of a doodah (1915).

And though I’ve already cited it several times, this is the place to praise the third edition of “Garner’s Modern American Usage” (Oxford, $45). Thorough, measured, and now with a Language-Change Index to help you monitor the progress of peeves, it’s our century’s answer to H.W. Fowler.

Jan Freeman hopes you’ll also give (or get) a copy of her new book, “Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Write It Right’: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-century Readers’’ (Walker, $24). E-mail her at mailtheword@gmail.com.