Fowler’s Reissued

Oxford University Press has just come out with a reprint of H.W. Fowler’s 1926 A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. The question I have is why? What is the purpose of regurgitating moldy grammar advice from over eighty years ago?

Now I understand the economic motivations. The book is cheap to produce, no author advance, no copy editing, etc. Label it a “classic” (which it assuredly is), slap on a new foreward by a noted linguist (i.e., David Crystal), and it will undoubtedly sell pretty well.

Nor do I dispute that it’s a good thing that Fowler is still in print. It is indeed a “classic” and it should be available for those that need it. And since it just made it under the wire for the 1923 public domain cutoff when copyright was extended, it will not be on Google Books any time soon. But those who actually need it are few. It is of little value to anyone but libraries, logophiles, and linguists who investigate historical patterns of usage and grammatical advice—and most of those probably already own a copy. (As I do—which I consult maybe twice a year when I have a historical grammar question.) Ideally OUP should have kept it on its backlist, perhaps with a print-on-demand schedule. (Modern technology means that you don’t need large print runs and warehousing to maintain profitability for low-demand books.)

But no writer needs to (or should) consult Fowler on what the best practices are. No editor or publisher needs to (or should) use Fowler as an in-house standard. Fowler’s original is hopelessly out of date. Here are some examples, culled by leafing through the book and not through any kind of systematic selection:

fanfare. It is perhaps better to pronounce the word as a FRENCH WORD, since neither noun nor verb has become familiar English; but the verb, if used, can hardly be treated as foreign, & should be fănfār’. fanfaronade, however is common enough to be fully anglicized.

dean, doyen. The FRENCH WORD doyen, a bad stumbling-block to the mere English-speaker, & the unfamiliar GALLICISM dean, are equally objectionable; as there is nothing complicated about the idea to be expressed, senior, with the assistance if necessary of whatever noun may be appropriate, should be made to do the work.

flamboyant is a word borrowed from writers on architecture, who apply it to the French style [...] characterized by tracery whose wavy lines suggest the shape or motion of tongues of flame. It is now fashionable in transferred senses; but whereas it should be synonymous with flowing or flexible or sinuous or free, it is more often than not made to mean florid or showy or vividly coloured or courting publicity. A word of which the true & the usual meanings are at odds is ambiguous, & could well be spared.

moslem, muslim. The OED treats the first as the ordinary English form, & there is no doubt that it is so. Correction into muslim is to be deprecated.

gibber, gibberish. The first is usually pronounced with soft g, & occasionally spelled ji-; the second is pronounced with hard g, & was sometimes spelled gui- or ghi- to mark the fact.

I’m not trying to criticize Fowler here. These were probably all sound pieces of advice in 1926, but they are laughable today. But I’m pointing out that for the vast majority of those who purchase it, a usage manual this old is just not useful. (Fowler is somewhat inconsistent and idiosyncratic, albeit much better than most grammarians, but that’s a topic for another post.)

There are enough good, current books on usage that don’t get their due, and even more that don’t get published. We don’t need a mass-market version of a creaky, eighty-plus-year-old book elbowing better, more current books off store shelves.

(Languagehat has some good comments on David Crystal’s introduction to the new edition.)

(Disclosure: Oxford University Press is also the publisher of my book, Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Additionally, if you click through the link and make a purchase, I receive a very small referral payment from Amazon.com.)

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