Alan Jacobs: BBEdit Freak, Essay Master

by Jul 22, 2010Books, Linguistics


I keep insisting to my wife that I’m not a real reader. I play at it. I pretend by force of will to be a reader. I wanna be one when I grow up. That’s all.

But there are those writers who turn me into a reader by their force of will, their skill and verve and depth. Alan Jacobs is one of those.

On his blog, Jacobs reveals his night-time identity as a word-processor control-freak who actually uses BBEdit to write everything because it gives him complete layout mastery.

But in his books—like The Narnian, Original Sin, and A Theology of Reading—and essays—like this new collection—Jacobs is an insightful prose master and illustrator. Yeah, illustrator, I think that’s it. He finds the best stories to tell, but they are there to make his points.

My all-time favorite is in Original Sin: A Cultural History. You have to read the one about the two-headed cow. It’s a striking and abiding illustration of total depravity (without in any way being defiling).

This excerpt from his new book is another good example. He tells a few stories from the field of lexicography—a field most people would consider the definition of dull. But everyone who reads his essay should come away knowing otherwise. Jacobs is a powerful ally in my quixotic battle against lexicographical prescriptivism.

Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

Twenty years before [the great Samuel] Johnson began his dictionary a lexicographer named Benjamin Martin wrote:

The pretence of fixing a standard to the purity and perfection of any language is utterly vain and impertinent, because no language as depending on arbitrary use and custom, can ever be permanently the same, but will always be in a mutable and fluctuating state; and what is deem’d polite and elegant in one age, may be counted uncouth and barbarous in another.

These words should make the epitaph of all Academies of language, and all forms of classicism as well — meaning by classicism what C. S. Lewis calls “the curious conception of the ‘classical’ period of a language, the correct or normative period before which all was immature or archaic and after which all was decadent.” . . . .

This is not to say that there are no excellences or barbarities in language. There are both, as Lewis well knew. But this grasping at past excellences as a means of preventing future barbarities is a mug’s game. To steal a line from William F. Buckley, Jr., there are certainly times to stand athwart history yelling Stop, but not in the Linguistic arena; yelling there is “utterly vain and impertinent.”

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