Book Review: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch (July 2016)

This book isn’t new but is still widely available. Susan Pierotti found a copy recently and liked what she read.

We all know what a dictionary is, don’t we? We go to it when we want to find out how to spell something, or to find that precise meaning for a particular word, or (in my sister’s case) how to get rid of a ‘z’ and an ‘x’ in Scrabble in order to score 400 points.

The utilitarian dictionary has had a curious life over the course of its roughly five hundred years of existence. Jack Lynch is a Professor of English at Rutgers University in the United States. His area of expertise is eighteenth-century literature with specific research on Samuel Johnson, and thus he is well qualified to lead us through the murky tale of the quest for that elusive beast – ‘proper’ English.


There have been so many complaints about the demise of English over the centuries that it is surprising to learn that no one was much concerned about written standards until the late seventeenth century, when an upwardly rising middle class became aware that how they spoke meant the difference between acceptance and rejection.

John Dryden, the poet and critic, is the first person on record to revise his works because his earlier versions seemed to ‘savour of a little rusticity’. To be a more noble language, that is, one spoken by nobles – or those aiming to mix with such – many thought that English needed to be brought into line, adopting Latin language rules and preferably controlled by an Academy.

Many years later, Samuel Johnson wrote the first version of what we would recognise as a dictionary today. He, however, let each word speak for itself by including quotes from previously written texts to illustrate each word in context.

Thus began the ‘dictionary wars’. Were dictionaries meant to tell us what words were ‘proper’ English or merely to tell us what words were in use? Was a dictionary prescriptivist, including only ‘good’ words, or descriptivist, allowing words in without bias?

Each dictionary editor faced this dilemma. Were they to keep every word from previous editions, such as those from before 1200 AD? Was every scientific term to be defined? Given that dictionaries are out of date as soon as they are published, were they able to include slang words? Which ones? In 1961, Webster’s Third Dictionary was excoriated for allowing ‘astronaut’, ‘automation’ and ‘nuclear’ to appear in its pages. From the press statements at the time, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was the end of civilisation!

Then there were the taboo words. We think we know what they are, but fashions change. The first edition of the Oxford Dictionary refused to admit ‘condom’. And who knew that the word ‘occupy’ used to be one of the most obscene words in the English-speaking world?

Informative and entertaining, this book is a joy to read.

Susan Pierotti AE
Communication subcommittee

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park, Jack Lynch, Walker Publishing Co., New York, 2010