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.
Considering how much ire these hangups, fixations, and antagonisms have provoked over the centuries, Hitchings remains admirably evenhanded, neither a hidebound reactionary nor a wild-eyed revolutionary. He has many descriptivist tendencies: He recognizes that change is inevitable, and reminds us that many of the things we assume are traditional have in fact never been the practice of serious writers. And he repeatedly chastises those who argue in bad faith. Purists often base their arguments on the need for clear communication, but those arguments can be unconvincing. No real person is in danger of misunderstanding “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Let the taboo ain’t and the double negative do their worst.
But Hitchings isn’t entirely on the descriptive side. He has his own pet peeves and eccentricities that he refuses to disavow; in fact, he admits to wincing when he sees his name altered by incompetent users of apostrophes in phrases like Hitching’s book. Even as he decries some of the sillier so-called rules, his own prose would receive a seal of approval from even the most demanding Mrs. Grundy: The prohibition on split infinitives is a poorly grounded prejudice, but Hitchings doesn’t split his own infinitives. Most of all, he recognizes the tendency we all have to think we alone have found the sweet spot between ignorance and pedantry. My favorite rules are essential to proper communication while your favorite rules are old-fashioned superstitions. Those who follow fewer rules than I do are illiterate dunces, while those who follow more rules than I do are stuffy purists.
Hitchings’s background prepared him well for this subject. His first book was an account of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language: not, as legend would have it, the first English dictionary—not by a long shot—but the first really great English dictionary. After that came The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, a lively overview of loanwords and the process by which words enter the language.
Hitchings, a Londoner, draws his examples almost invariably from British English, with the result that some American readers may feel lost from time to time. But most of the book makes sense anywhere in the English-speaking world. The first few chapters offer some meditations on the philosophy of language before giving a general history of English, a language once spoken by just a few tens of thousands of Germanic tribesmen on an island off the northwest coast of Europe, now spoken in some form by perhaps a billion people.
The finer points of the language may seem dry—comma placement and the fate of objective-case relative pronouns may be less than thrilling to most readers—but Hitchings keeps the discussion animated, offering interesting digressions on politically charged topics like political correctness, feminism, globalization, and the English-only movement. Hitchings knows that language can never be separated from morality and politics. This leads him to take on subjects like the relationship between language and national identity, as with Theodore Roosevelt’s impatience with what were being called “Hyphenated Americans”—Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans—more than a century ago. “There can be no fifty-fifty Americanism,” Roosevelt declared in 1906; “I think the most un-American thing in the world is a hyphen,” echoed Woodrow Wilson a decade later.
And politics is still tied up with ideas about the language. The political right today tends to cluster on the prescriptive end of the spectrum—think of the late William Safire—but it’s not at all obvious that conservatives should be prescriptivists. On the one hand, resisting linguistic “decay” is consistent with a fondness for tradition and maintaining standards against the ravages of relativism. On the other hand, history shows us that the language won’t stand still without serious intervention, and that sort of intervention is often toxic to the right. A changing language, after all, is an almost perfect model of the free market. It’s telling that, while many of the major world languages have official academies to rule on what’s right and wrong—the Académie française is the most famous—no English-speaking nation has an official governing body, probably because of the long Anglophone tradition of liberty and a distrust of institutions and social engineering.
Anyone who cares about the language—and that almost certainly includes everyone who reads this review—would do well to read The Language Wars. It’s important to approach it with an open mind; those who expect Hitchings to confirm their prejudices will inevitably come away disappointed. And every reader will be frustrated from time to time. But they all stand to learn from this entertaining, wide-ranging, and unusually balanced account of the blood that has been spilled in the name of proper English.
Jack Lynch is professor of English at Rutgers and the author of, among other books, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park.