Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn: The Story of English


Marshall Tankersley

Why is the English Language so elusive? While other languages like French have their edges clearly and well defined, English hops and skips along nonchalantly, grabbing new words that catches its eye and throwing away old ones that went out of fashion last year. English has been notoriously hard to pin down, with varieties of spelling plaguing its words since its inception (remember the 18th century fad of using ‘f’ instead of ‘s?’ That was ftupid). Many have tried through the ages to tame this roiling miasma of chaos and beauty, but only a few have succeeded. Why does English stand tall and proud among the world’s languages, unfettered and free while others remain shackled and chained to arbitrary rules? Perhaps most importantly, why should this matter to modern audiences?

The quest to domesticate the wild English language truly began with Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. This was one of the first real attempts to pin down the heart of what the English language was and truly meant to its users, especially as it related to its written form. Johnson and his cohorts did their best with the technology and abilities they had been given, but their efforts were ultimately not what was needed to bring the language to heel. Johnson allowed too many of his own personal beliefs and biases into the work to create a truly objective understanding of the language. To make matters worse, given the small size of the dictionary writing group and the rather larger scale of the English language, creating a work that spanned English’s breadth was impossible. The task of truly exploring and mapping English would fall to James Murray and the creators of the Oxford English Dictionary. These fine gents spent the better part of their lives engaged in such an intellectual pursuit, eventually obtaining assistance from every English speaker they could possibly contact to send in examples of every known word. This process eventually enabled them to create a set of books (this same Oxford English Dictionary) that truly defined what English was and how it was to be used.

                Rather awkwardly, other countries have tried to go even further in their domination of their own language. France, for example, has created an entire committee designed to keep its language prim, proper, and pristine – and also dull, dry, and dusty. Why is this such a problem? Well, languages, by their very nature, should grow. Languages learn from other languages, stealing words, concepts and ideas. Languages change, morphing and twisting into new and more beautiful shapes. Pinning a language down so specifically takes one from being a studying ornithologist to being a game hunter whose only goal is to stick the head of captured prey up on the mantlepiece, unchanging and dead. Beyond the fact that doing such a thing is truly terrible and destroys the innate beauty of a language, undertaking such an endeavor makes everything about the enthusiast and not the language itself, more about the restrictions than about the beauties of whatever language it is seeking to preserve and highlight. This will never do. A truly intellectual linguistic enthusiast is always more excited to see the subject growing than he is to claim its kill as his own, and that is something the English language has been gifted in the Oxford English Dictionary.

                The work of the Oxford English Dictionary cannot be underestimated in either its impact or its scale. The sheer size of the project almost caused problems before the true work had even begun, as Simon Winchester writes in his book The Meaning of Everything:

Long beforehand Murray had warned of the scale of what he was now openly calling ‘the Big Dictionary.’ It would, he wrote, ‘be far more enormous than one would suppose could possibly sell – far too large to be printed at anything but a frightful expenditure of money.’ Macmillan, on hearing this dismaying news, tried every imaginable way to perform the arithmetic that would make economic sense – trying to persuade Murray to pare the book to its very bones, trying to pay almost nothing to those who would be employed in making the book, trying to suggest… a shorter version to act as an amuse-gueule for the reading public. But Murray… held firm. (86)

James Murray understood the scale of the project he was about to undertake, but also realized just how important it was to be to the perpetuation of the English language itself. He refused to scale back his work or to compromise its integrity, choosing instead to push forward no matter how hard it would be for him and those working with him. For that, we modern English readers owe him a great debt of gratitude.

By emphasizing the beauty of English in attempting to map its various hills and contours, James Murray and friends made sure that their readers understood that English was growing. English was not something that could be pinned down to a corkboard like a butterfly, or something that could be conquered on a hunt like a wild boar. It was not a prize at all. Rather, English was beautiful entirely on its own and entirely by itself, and regulating it to the point that other languages had been would only destroy that beauty. True beauty, lasting beauty, is appreciated best by those who are able to sit back and simply enjoy, not by those who believe it is their right or duty in life to interfere with everything. The language should be enjoyed through observation, not through attempts to mold it to fit whatever idea of language permeates popular thought. It is tempting to say that Murray’s greatest accomplishment would be the marking down of so many known words in his Oxford English Dictionary, but that answer would be rather simplistic. Murray’s greatest accomplishment is the beautification of the English language for the generations of readers that came after him, making the heights and depths of its grand space accessible to all. James Murray preserved English by giving it back to its people.