In Gambit, Rex Stout’s 1962 mystery novel, the quirky and housebound detective Nero Wolfe sits before a fireplace on a too-small chair, “tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged.” Why? “He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language.” Able to cite “a thousand examples of its crimes,” including using infer and imply interchangeably, the detective calls it “a deliberate attempt to murder” the language.
Nero Wolfe’s lexicographical auto-da-fé reveals he’s an eccentric, but Stout was far from alone in fantasizing about committing Webster’s Third to the flames. The dictionary was positively scandalous when it appeared in September 1961: Critics said it had abandoned all standards and forfeited its role as a guardian of the English language. The battle over high standards versus relativist chaos was played out against the background of the Cold War: For some, the permissive dictionary was a Bolshevik document, its publication tantamount to passing the nuclear launch codes to Nikita Khrushchev.
The hostilities over Webster’s Third were the most high-profile battle of the 20th century between the prescriptivists, those who would prescribe what is correct and improve the language, and the descriptivists, who believe all such attempts are futile and think the only responsible course is to describe the way the language is used by real people. Webster’s Third was the product of a team of descriptivists, for whom any new word, meaning, usage, or pronunciation, once it has been adopted by the majority of English-speakers, was correct de facto. For prescriptivists like Dwight Macdonald, on the other hand, “If nine-tenths of the citizens of the United States, including a recent President, were to use inviduous, the one-tenth who clung to invidious would still be right, and they would be doing a favor to the majority if they continued to maintain the point.”
This clash of sensibilities is the subject of Henry Hitchings’s book. People have been working to “fix” a broken English language at least since the 17th century, and The Language Wars tells their story. Many of the quarrels are surprisingly ill-tempered: Passions run high when the conversation turns to the language. Reviewing Webster’s Third in the New Yorker, Macdonald used powerful metaphors when he reflected on the removal of obsolete words from the dictionary: “This incredible massacre—almost half the words in the English language seem to have disappeared between 1934 and 1961—is in fact incredible.” John Humphrys, Britain’s most prominent champion of correctness, recently described text-messaging teenagers as “vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbors eight hundred years ago,” including “savaging our sentences” and “raping our vocabulary.” Others may not go as far as invoking “massacre” or “rape,” but they still think in terms of wasting disease. “The prognosis for the ailing language is not good,” declared Jean Stafford in 1970. “I predict that it will not die in my lifetime, but I fear that it will be assailed by countless cerebral accidents and massive strokes and gross insults to the brain and finally no one will be able to sit up in bed and take nourishment
Hitchings offers an entertaining and informative collection of episodes like this, with pundits and mavens sometimes protesting, and sometimes hyperventilating, over split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions, misplaced apostrophes, and teenage textspeak (“u k m8” for “Are you okay, mate?”). He tells the stories of masters of style, professors of linguistics, splenetic grouches, ill-informed cranks, even “punctuation vigilantes” (“no joke,” he adds) who roam the modern urban landscape “blotting out rogue apostrophes and rejigging punctuation” on signs. His cast of characters includes plenty of eccentrics, a few of them certifiably insane, but there are also serious and sober experts and distinguished writers among them: Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Henry Watson Fowler, William Strunk and E. B. White, and dozens of other more or less familiar names.