While kicking around ideas to post on “words,” I remembered an article I wrote a few years ago for Humanities magazine—perhaps because the piece ran under the headline Words, Words, Words. It was the story of a new scholarly edition of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, considered the first authoritative work of its kind when it was initially printed in 1755. That’s not very long ago, in the history of the English language. It’s amazing to think that before then, there wasn’t one single source for English speakers to consult (whereas Spanish and French speakers had long had such books, a shameful fact to the British publishers who recruited Johnson). Forget dictionary.com. There wasn’t even a dictionary.
The most interesting irony is that the act of creating an authoritative word glossary only revealed the democratic, evolutionary nature of the language. Words don’t respond well to authority. To quote my own article, if I may:
By his own admission, Johnson set out to “fix” the language, to stabilize it, and in so doing, save it from those who would erode it by using it–a mission in line with “Dr. Johnson’s” rigid reputation. “People still like to think of Johnson as a dictator of language,” DeMaria says. “And in the dictionary, you can point to evidence of that.” For example, in a comparison of the words “later” and “latter,” Johnson declares that the, well, latter of the two is “only used by barbarians.”
Yet in the end (that is to say, in the Preface), Johnson came to respect the common usage of words, admitting that language can no more be fixed than “the image of a grove in a rainstorm.” He resigned himself, in this case not unhappily, to the task of “registering” the language, capturing it as it was. “He was quite struck with the variety, the illusiveness, and the liquidity of language, its fugitive qualities,” DeMaria explains.
Fugitive qualities, eh? Sometimes, it seems like more and more words are going into hiding (“k, c u there, ttyl!”). For those of us who work with words (and especially weirdos like me who insist on proper spelling and punctuation even in a casual email–an email!), it can be a bit frustrating. But it isn’t just barbarians who are to blame texting and tweeting, and even 140 characters are plenty when used properly. Our language is an everyday glimpse of who we are and who we are becoming (“image of a grove in a rainstorm,” meet UrbanDictionary.com). It was nice to be reminded that even this guy (right) got with the times (albeit the mid-18th century) and learned to love—and respect—the language as we know it, and as we use it.