Bizzaro Book Review: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

I love words.

And I mean that too. Some people say they love words, and what they really mean is “I love writing.”

But words and language in and of themselves hold a kind of special fascination for me. It’s probably the fault of the highschool I attended that taught Latin as a foreign language, but for whatever reason I’ve been obsessed with etymology as well as the foibles of language in general and English in particular for years.

James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, is one of my personal heroes, and I care way more than I should about the debate between the prescriptivist and descriptivist schools of grammar.  So you know that when I see a book called The Lexicographer’s Dilemma sitting on the shelf in the bookstore I’ve got to pick it up.

I starting reading this book hoping for a history of the debate between prescriptivist and descriptivist linguistics. But the further I read the more I realized that this was much like going to Grand Canyon National Park to see the Colorado River.

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is, at its heart, a book about the history of the English language, and not only the language itself but the men who tried to understand and shape it. It covers a wide range topics, from how we got such rules as, “Don’t split infinitives” and “Never end a sentence with a preposition”, to why English spelling and pronunciation are so hopelessly wonky.

Hukt On Foniks indeed.

But even that description falls far short of translating what this book is. It is no mere dull history, no hopelessly dry litany of facts, dates and etymologies. It is a book that is in love with the language itself.

Jack Lynch is not only a man who knows what he’s talking about backwards and forwards, but he is man who clearly and frankly adores this subject matter. This book has humor that turns up in the most unexpected of places, it has a lucid and entertaining examination of the history and psychology of swear words, and of course there’s no shortage of credit given to the great lexicographers of the past.

All in all I highly recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest in the complexities of language. It does not go to the depths that other books aspire to, but it is fantastically entertaining and wonderfully educational.

If you care about language, you have to read this book. I promise you it does not disappoint.

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3 responses to “Bizzaro Book Review: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

  1. I’m definitely going to check this one out! I’ve actually heard of it before on NPR. One of my favorite programs on Wisconsin Public Radio is A Way With Words, and the whole program is word puzzles, and callers that ask about correct pronunciation, colloquialisms, multiple meanings, origins, etc. and the hosts are really informed. It’s so cool! I’m clearly such a dork! I actually LOVED my college class on language phonetics. Great review, Albert!

  2. I learned Green and Latin “roots” in school and I can’t tell you how much it helps my spelling and vocabulary on a daily basis.
    Great review!

  3. Pingback: Search Term Bingo: Round 3(ish) | Albert Berg's Unsanity Files

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