The Queen’s English – En Garde!

In the world of grammar there are descriptivists (language liberals) and prescriptivists (strict adherence to the rules).  In the “Dictionary of Unendurable  English”, Robert Hartwell Fiske leaves no doubt about his feelings; he believes that rules promote accuracy, clarity, and elegance and that we should respect and adhere to them.

What concerns Fiske are the misuse and misspellings which recur with regularity and virtually all of the dictionaries (which he ranks, naturally) which are ever increasing their descriptivist mode and tend to endorse such lapses; he gives hundreds of illustrations to support his case.

How is it possible he asks that the current Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary would accept and define alright (which he despises) for “all right” and (with a wink) leave out definitions for boeotian (of or like the people of Boeotia, who were dull and stupid), diaskeuast (someone who makes revisions), myriadigamous (one who marries all kinds), nyctophobia (an abnormal fear of darkness or nighttime), or ubiety (the condition of being in a particular place)?  As much as I may be in sympathy with Fiske, I must readily acknowledge that none of those words is ever likely to find its way into routine conversation.

Or consider the following:  of one of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of peruse (“to look over or through in a causal or cursory manner”), he says: “Merriam-Webster’s definition of peruse nicely illustrates how useless this book has become.  Peruse does, indeed, mean to read or examine thoroughly . . . or carefully; to study.  Only people who consult valueless dictionaries like Merriam-Webster would believe that peruse also means to read casually or hastily.”

Neither he nor his detractors mince any words (after all they are wordsmiths), and this is what one lexicographer, Grant Barrett, says of Fiske:  “Robert Hartwell Fiske isn’t a linguist. He’s a self-involved curmudgeon — that’s not a compliment but a criticism of his intellectual limitations — who is the go-to guy for the same kind of dismissive claptrap you’ll hear from anybody who’s speaking on language out-side their area of expertise.”

And, of course, Fiske replied:  “Language cravens, as Barrett nicely illustrates, are intolerant of anyone who does not have a degree in linguistics, commenting or offering views about the language.  If language cravens were less fearful and insecure — less craven — they might more graciously accept, or at least tolerate, views that differ from their own.”

To be continued . . .

Ken Butera



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