^^^ (Continued)

The earliest English usage guides—the precursors to dictionaries as we know them today—sprang up as English wealth was expanding from the aristocracy to the merchant class, and doubled as guides to etiquette. They were part of the same prescriptivist impulse that motivates many of the grammar scolds of the 21st century: Daniel Defoe wanted to establish an English “academy” that would inject “purity and propriety of style” into the newly literarily-legitimized English language; Jonathan Swift and John Dryden entertained similar aspirations to create early forms of the governmental language protections that France and Spain enacted in attempts to keep their languages “pure.”

The men’s desires for English, which arose from their love for English, were a response to their historical moment: In an age of newfound social and economic mobility, good grammar—good, patriotic English grammar—became seen as a sign not just of one’s education, but of one’s social standing and worth. In 1762, Robert Lowth, the bishop of London, published A Short Introduction to British Grammar: With Critical Notes. Lowth’s preface declared that “it is with reason expected of every person of a liberal education, and it is indispensably required of everyone who undertakes to inform or entertain the public, that he should be able to express himself with propriety and accuracy.” His manual was one of many guides that were sold, Stamper notes, under the general assumption that “good manners, good morality, and good grammar all go hand in hand.”

It’s an idea that remains with us, embedded in Lynne Truss’s attack on the use of “it’s” as a possessive pronoun, and in the tagline of the popular Facebook group The Official Grammar Police (“I am judging you’re your grammar”). It’s an idea that lingers, as well, in the businessman-turned-self-appointed-grammarian N.M. Gwynne’s argument, made in his 2013 book The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English, that good grammar is a means not just to social respectability, but to happiness itself. (“In summary of the proof: Grammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which—as both common sense and experience show—happiness is impossible. Therefore, happiness depends at least partly on good grammar.”)

These notions of the normality—and, indeed, the morality—of “good English” complicate Stamper’s own professional humility. Language may be a tool of human communication, and dictionaries may simply record the shape of those tools as they exist within a particular moment in time; but the reality, as Stamper well knows, is much more complex than her simple observe-record-define formula might suggest. The history of the dictionary is not merely a history of English being defended, but also a history of dictionaries being debated: What should dictionaries do, actually? Should they prescribe English usage? Should they proscribe it?

This is the paradox of the English dictionary, and it is one that quietly infuses Stamper’s delightful history of that product: A dictionary is a determinedly apolitical document that will always be, to some extent, determinedly politicized. Its pages, whether tangible or digital, will always offer an awkward interplay between the normal and the normative. Samuel Johnson, the ur-lexicographer (and a laborer who argued that dictionary-writing required “neither the light of learning, nor the activity of genius,” but merely “the proper toil of artless industry”), nonetheless resisted including Americanisms in A Dictionary of the English Language; Noah Webster, for reasons both opposite and identical, resisted including British conventions in his American dictionary.

In 2003, Merriam-Webster, using the typical lexicographical method—observe words in the wild; exhaustively document evidence of new usages; update words’ entries accordingly—updated its definition for “marriage” to acknowledge that same-sex couples were entering that institution. The new definition provoked a write-in campaign to Merriam-Webster, accusing the dictionary of politics-via-lexicon. The anger was extremely predictable. Because—and this is the other thing a history of dictionaries will make abundantly clear—words are not merely words, and not merely tools. They are intimate. They are extensions of ourselves. They are one of the few immediate ways we have to take that small piece of reality that is ours—the mind, the self, the soul, choose whichever word in the dictionary seems most apt to you—and offer it to other people.

Word by Word, as it happens, enters the scene during a time of anxiety about those words—in American English, in particular. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” and the moment’s general epistemic panics come with some other panicky questions: Do words, in the end, matter? Can they be used, still, to share information and change minds? Language has long been a weapon, and a front, in the American culture wars (see: marriage, n., the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law). Now, in a very real sense, it is also the thing being fought for. Facts, meaning, a culture enabled by shared truths—these are all, currently, at stake. Dictionaries (and Merriam-Webster, in particular) are doing their own part in all this. They are, in bids for continued relevance, operating more and more as quasi-journalistic outlets. They are functioning not merely as reference works or as histories, but also as soft suggestions that the ground beneath us can still be “common.”

It’s hard to read Stamper’s eloquent love letter to letters themselves and not come away convinced that dictionaries, stodgy and nimble and proud and humble and old and new, are something else, too: metaphors. For linguistic utilitarianism, for the productive interplay between the amateur and the professional, for the creative communal energies that will tend to drive the most thriving cultures. And for the notion that progress has a way of ignoring whatever rules might be enacted to prevent it. “It’s” becomes “its,” and “you’re” becomes “your” becomes “ur,” and lightning fires have not, as yet, burned it all down. And taco, sari, woke, multicultural, love—there they all are, in the dictionary, not just because they are useful vessels of human connection, but also because, in the dictionary, inclusion is the default setting. Diction is more useful when it is varied. Grammar is more fun when it allows for liberties to be taken with it. Language is more effective when it is quirky, and experimental, and above all welcoming—whatever, and irregardless of what, the scolds might have to say about it.