Language and usage

Was it the job of a dictionary to be the guardian of the language (in accordance with ideas described in Fossil poetry, Patriotism, Literature and the nation, and Language and morality? Or should it instead furnish an impartial and objectively assembled account of the linguistic evidence (see 19th-century historical lexicography)? Reviewers of the Philological Society’s early manifesto, the Proposal for a Publication of a New English Dictionary (1859), and of the various instalments of the OED which appeared from 1884 onwards, did not all approve its programme of neutral record and comprehensive inclusion of words.

Four concerns come up time and again in discussions of language and of what the new Dictionary should and should not include. These are:

  1. the unregulated spread of English as a world language (especially in the United States and Australia)
  2. increasing newspaper production and circulation (leading to again unregulated promulgation of undesirable words and usage)
  3. wider educational provision (as a consequence of the various Education Acts legislating for state provision of primary and secondary education from 1870 onwards)
  4. universal franchise (complete in 1928, coinciding with the completion of OED).

All four concerns were current over the period of publication of the OED (1884-1928). OED was the great recorder of the English language and hence the repository of its literary and cultural treasure (in the form of quotations). But it must also, critics felt, act as its guardian.

Critical responses to OED’s policy of comprehensive inclusion

Here are three representative examples of critical response to the OED project – two from its early days and one on its final publication.

First, J. H. Marsden, writing in the Edinburgh Review, believed (like Schlegel and Trench) that ‘one of the most laudable objects an educated man can pursue is to defend [the language] from contamination’. Consequently he was horrified by the claim made in the Society’s Proposal, that ‘the first requirement of every lexicon, is that it should contain every word occurring in the literature it professes to illustrate’:

What is this but to throw down all barriers and rules, and declare that every form of expression which may have been devised by the humour, the ignorance, or the affectation of any writer, is at once to take rank in the national vocabulary?

Marsden finished his article by saying that when all the materials for this new dictionary had been assembled, then ‘there must somewhere lie a power of arbitration. From the moment that the building begins, the republic must give way to a dictator’ (Marsden 1859: 369, 386).

Derwent Coleridge (son of the poet, and our second example) told the Philological Society much the same in a paper he read to them in May 1860. ‘What I conceive to be the higher functions of the Lexicographer have been to some extent disclaimed, and his office regarded as not possessing any judicial or regulative authority,’ he warned his audience, which included his own nephew, Herbert Coleridge, one of the authors of the Society’s Proposal, and the first editor of the new dictionary. A Lexicographer, the elder man felt, ‘must not merely produce authorities’ – i.e. evidence – but ‘he must adjudicate, settling each point, as it occurs, under the guidance of his own observation, or more commonly of that life-long, unconscious induction, which amounts in a highly-cultivated native speaker’. In short, ‘The office of a Dictionary…is eminently regulative – regulative in effect, though declarative in form. It separates the spurious from the genuine’ (D. Coleridge 1860: 155-6).

In making his case, Derwent Coleridge pointed to the extensive and continuing influence of Johnson as a guide to style and usage as well as meaning: he had ‘noticed a newly-bound copy of Johnson’s dictionary’ on Lord Macaulay’s desk a few months before his death, and been told by the great man that he ‘used it to keep his diction up to the classic standard, and to prevent himself from slipping into spurious modernisms’.

These two conflicting positions are further illustrated by our third example, a review of OED published as a leading article in the Times Literary Supplement in 1928. The author, C. W. Brodribb (1878-1945), a classicist on the staff of The Times who regularly reviewed for the TLS, described the OED as ‘that monumental and inalienable public possession’ and clearly approved ‘the great principle that a dictionary must be a register of all words for which literary usage, good or bad, common or rare, could be cited’.

But he struck quite a different note at the end of his article. Here he linked privilege, class, education and democracy together with the use and misuse of language, and hoped that, now OED had gathered all words together, it would in future enact a different role, providing a stable criterion against which new words could be judged (and by implication, rejected where necessary):

The year of final delivery [of the OED] coincides with the grant of universal franchise; but at bottom the Dictionary bears the stamp of the last age of privilege. The mass of it was got together before the newly literate received their charter to treat the language as they pleased in hourly print [i.e. newspapers]….Those who respect the purity of the language, who try to honour and understand its traditions and its idioms, who feel doubtful whether even so supple an instrument as English can bear without grave deterioration the incessant strain put upon it by modern democracy, will rather rejoice that the Dictionary has come into being when it has and as it has. The registration of every word and every usage they recognize to be a noble ideal; but they believe that what is now wanted is a standard of good, or at least passable, English, and a criterion to which all writers can apply as soon as education begins to turn cocksureness into diffidence. Now that the Dictionary is complete there should be ground for hoping that, although it does not set up to be an arbiter, it will nevertheless be more and more resorted to as one.

Brodribb 1928: 277-8

Inconsistencies in OED’s practice

These reactions and others like them explain the inconsistent attitude occasionally detectable in OED1’s treatment of the quotation evidence it cites or refers to. As an avowedly descriptive dictionary the OED’s job is to record how language is used, not prescribe how it should be used, but prescriptive editorial notes and labels can certainly be found both in the first and the second editions (in the latter case, deriving from Burchfield’s 20th-century Supplement).

For more on OED’s treatment of usage issues see Brewer 2005, Brewer 2007c, Brewer 2008a, and Mugglestone 2000a and 2000b; for an invaluable bibliography of reviews and discussion of OED1 see Bailey 2000a; for a brief account of usage manuals of the period see Finegan 1998: 572-8; for a selection of relevant texts see Crowley 1991: 171-218; and for more general discussion see Crowley 2003 and Milroy and Milroy 1991.

An EOED section on issues of Usage and correctness in the various editions and versions OED is in preparation, due to be completed in 2020 (under Topics).

Last updated on 13 August 2020