Date: 19/01/2022
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Putting Fowler Back in Fowler's

I'm sure NER readers will be relieved to learn that a new edition of Fowler's is coming out with the blood pumped back into it that had evidently been drained from the last edition. Luckily, I am in possession of a 1957 edition - true to the original - given to me some years ago by a thoughtful friend. (h/t: Arts & Letters):

Henry Watson Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is an unabashedly prescriptivist tome, which is to say that it doesn’t waffle in describing the right way, and the wrong way, to use English words. The archetypal usage manual, commonly called just “Fowler’s,” was initially published in 1926. It has undergone two revisions since, the product of the first of which, a book judiciously and lightly edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, was released in 1965. F.W. Bateson, the English literary scholar, reflected the general feeling when he wrote that Gowers was “remarkably successful . . . in retaining Fowler’s ipsissima verba while making the minor corrections and qualifications that time has made necessary.”

Similar approbation did not greet the second revision of Fowler’s, published in 1996 and helmed by the late lexicographer and linguist Robert W. Burchfield. John Simon, reviewing that book for the New Criterion, wrote that Burchfield — who before editing Fowler’s had edited both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Cambridge History of the English Language — had “made himself a true citizen of Oxbridge.” “But an ox bridge,” Simon quipped, “can be no better that a pons asinorum.”

The trouble, simply put, was that Burchfield had expunged Fowler from Fowler’s. Gone were some of the original author’s beloved subheadings (“Pairs and Snares” was pared, “Unequal Yokefellows” unyoked) and gone, too, was his jaunty, slightly mischievous, scything-while-grinning tone. Most objectionable was that Burchfield had changed Fowler’s from a prescriptive book to a descriptive one. Usage was no longer to be judged but understood. Entries that had earlier attacked ambiguity, castigated the careless, and lowered the boom on barbarism were suddenly more interested in explaining the origins and development of the English language’s scofflaws than in pointing them out and locking up. The warden had become the prison psychologist.

William Safire wrote that the first Fowler’s was “a body-and-soul book, rambling through the byways of usage” and “written with a style all its own: certain, authoritative, unafraid to make decisions.” Burchfield’s edition is not at all that. It is a fine reference manual assembled by a first-rate scholar, to be sure, and anyone seeking edification about the historical iterations of words and phrases would do well to consult its pages. But it does not follow its predecessor on a merry march through the English language, nor does it do much for Henry Fowler’s originally intended reader, that “half-educated Englishman of literary proclivities” who just wants to know: “‘Can I say so-&-so?’”

Today’s half-educated supplicants, those less than obsessive about scouring used-book shops, have had to content themselves with Gowers’s interpretation of Fowler’s because the original version was long out of print. And young people growing up on Burchfield’s book no doubt find Fowler’s just another among the plodding reference manuals to be occasionally consulted and then quickly reshelved. Not a fine state of affairs. Thankfully, Oxford University Press has now swept to the rescue with the rerelease of the first edition, in effect putting Fowler back in charge of Fowler’s...