Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

How did we end up with these people in charge?

When we hear a humanities professor complain about Dead White Males, as happened so often in the 1980s and ’90s, we wondered, “How is it that people who resent the legacy of Shakespeare, Racine, and Nietzsche come to occupy positions in the institution that is supposed to maintain that legacy?”

And how did Christian churches find themselves led by people who dislike longstanding Christian doctrine?

How did museums that house treasures of civilization accept directors and curators who dispute the priority of high culture?

Many years from now, this will be one of the interesting historical questions about the later twentieth century—not how anti-traditionalist ideas arose in our society, but how people cynical about or heedless of tradition infiltrated institutions dedicated to it.

When I hear them speak, I don’t want to debate the points for and against. The nature and merits of high culture and Western civilization are not up for discussion, not with them. I just marvel at how the halls of higher taste and learning ended up in the hands of disrespecting persons.

Another example came up the other day. NPR’s Terry Gross interviews Kory Stamper, an editor at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary maker, who explained, among other things, why the term “f-bomb” belongs in the reference work. (That and “binge-watch,” “photobomb,” “truther,” and other pop coinages.)

The reason is simple, Stamper says. Language is a “living thing,” always changing, and the job of the lexicographer is to map it, not to judge it.

In other words, the old job of the dictionary to prescribe proper usage is over. It’s not the King’s English, it’s the people’s English. That shift has been linguistic dogma ever since the famous publication of Webster’s Third (as it is called) in 1961, which decisively operated on description, not prescription. I have a copy of it, and also a copy of Webster’s Second, from 1934, which stuck to the old ways of propriety and is the one I use whenever I need an American definition.

Stamper, of course, follows the new approach without a whisper of self-criticism. In fact, she steps right into the standard routine of linguists whenever the prospect of standards and decorum arises. She mocks it:

A lot of times, people assume that English as we speak it is something that was curated maybe by some dudes in frilly shirts back in the 1700s. But in fact, a language is … always influenced by the people who come in and speak it or come in and conquer it.

Note the cool idiom “dudes.” It shows that Stamper is no snob. She has a new book out, Word by Word, documenting recent efforts at “keeping the dictionary up to date.”

Let’s pass on Word by Word, choosing instead books by people who, instead of joining the nonstop chase for currency, know that the way to keep the English language expressive and fresh and vivid is by maintaining the traditions and guarding against cliche, barbarism, puerile neologisms, and politically correct violations of grammar (the singular they).

Mark Bauerlein is Senior Editor of First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles