R. C. Trench Vs. Lexicographical Prescriptivism (i.e., CONTROVERSY!)

by Mar 5, 2009Books0 comments

I’ve finally gotten to a book I’ve had on my mental list ever since Dr. Randy Leedy, my Advanced Greek Grammar teacher, recommended it to his class some years ago: Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography.

Sidney Landau is so far weaving a fascinating account of the making—and the history of the making—of dictionaries.

Let me share one anecdote:

R. C. Trench, author of the classic (but linguistically suspect) Synonyms of the New Testament, was actually the catalyst for the production of the Oxford English Dictionary, the world publication landmark. His 1857 address to the Philological Society perceptively noted multiple problems with the lexicography of his day (78).

Trench said rightly, “It is no task of the maker of [a dictionary] to select the good words of a language. . . . He is an historian of [the language], not a critic.”

He also noted that the public of his day “conceive of a Dictionary as though it had this function to be a standard of the language”—something later generations of Anglo-Saxon bloggers would call “Lexicographical Prescriptivism.” Trench blames the French Academy for promoting such a misconception.

Trench issues a stirring call to throw off the shackles of Lexicographical Prescriptivism:

I cannot understand how any writer with the smallest confidence in himself, the least measure of that vigour and vitality which would justify him in addressing his countrymen in written or spoken discourse at all, should consent in this matter to let one self-made dictator, or forty, determine for him what words he should use, and what he should forbear from using.

Amen and amen.

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