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Mr Dryasdust the dessicated pedant
on 7 November 2014
The gentleman amateur blundered in - and how they lapped it up! The mystery - as, for different reasons, with The Uses of Literacy - is not the extraordinary work itself but the yet more extraordinary renown it garnered. Quaint ain't the word for it - it's deranged. In his day Fowler was seen almost as unstuffy, a neo-Georgian Sir Galahad spearing shibboleths of language such as that one should never start sentences with 'and' or 'but' or end them with a preposition. Now his work positively exudes stuffiness, along with complacency and a kind of concealed prescriptiveness, though more frequently proscribing; infuriating, muddled and arcane, when not simple common sense or 'filler' it's composed chiefly of subjectivity and blether.
Fowler takes against that innocuous, rather perky little phrase au pied de la lettre, calling it an abomination - except in 'perhaps five per cent' of cases(!) - and then fussily proceeds to put a full stop after 'cent'. There's a certain wry humour here, of the kind you might stumble on in Gibbon, but for Gawd's sake don't waste time looking for it. Fowler wrote what he pleased, a cross between an indulged infant prodigy or oracle and a schoolmaster no one has the heart to pension off. His distinction between periphrasis and pleonasm, for instance (listed under the curious rubric Technical Terms), is woeful - any dictionary will serve you better - yet he will gladly drivel on (sorry, expatiate) about tautology, evidently not considered a technical term in his book. It was, actually, his lifeblood, in its subset waffle. Thank heaven for the democracy of the internet, say I. I just checked eponymous on The Grammarist*, but any google search on matters linguistic is liable to find one spoiled/spoilt for choice - long live our vital, protean and now-shared tongue!
I was interested to learn that vermeil rhymed with thermal in English**, which clears up the scansion of a line ('thy vermeil hue') that has troubled me for more years than I care to admit. This useful information was omitted from the second edition, presumably because by 1965 no one said vermeil any more (but some of us still read it - and now no true Brit can pronounce it in French either), though Gowers unaccountably retained the information that vertigo was traditionally stressed on the second syllable; now that should set you up should you ever go in for a spot of time travelling, where I imagine vertigo might be a hazard.
Pronunciation's the minefield. In Fowler's day, of course, one had recourse to the OED and there was an end of it; nowadays linguistic purism (or puritanism, which looks on prescriptiveness with horror) ensures that it's a free-for-all, where the BBC has scuttled the ship and those of us who actually know how to pronounce covert*** and respite, feral and rabid (nothing to do with ferrous or rabbits), flaccid and unconsummated (spot the connexion?) are somewhere between a secret society and a dying breed. Cumin, cadaver, tinnitus, troth (rhymes with both quoth loth, not moth broth wrath).. Theatre folk and above all poets, whose respective crafts require that they love words to distraction and beyond, remain mostly among the initiate. How? By using dictionaries, the way all of us had to (and some still do). They are the custodians of our tongue. Where does that leave linguists, the professionals? Do they love words? Can they even remember what love is? Fowler, clearly no linguist (the obligatory, non-aural classics don't count), accused people who pronounce foreign words correctly of showing off. I'm always keen to learn myself - there's the difference
This musty screed is of purely antiquarian interest - AND ALWAYS WAS. Of course the correct approach is neither prescriptive NOR descriptive but robust common sense and as large a vocabulary as one can muster (hardly any words are redundant; all serve their turn), punctiliousness and vigilance combined ('fastidious precision' (Fowler) but without pedantry or pretension****), respect for forbears whose works we must still be able to read, understand - and pronounce - as their authors intended, together with an ear to the ever-shifting ground
NB If I pass no comment on the Crystalline interpolations, it is because my copy's of the first edition, 1940 reprint. Touching, if disconcerting, that my highly articulate parents felt the need to possess this preposterous talisman, this arbitrary, scarcely ever consulted oracle..
* or, properly, 'Grammarist'
** No word on how to say 'azure', though; were we all presumed to know? (If you want poems to scan - or for any other reason - it's pronounced as the ill-informed and Americans are in the habit of pronouncing Asia, by the way..)
*** If you're in any doubt, it's 'covered' with a Scottish accent, just as kempt is Scots for combed
**** and there's the rub - one man's fastidiousness is another man's pretension. But why can one not be as proud of one's language as one is, say, of one's car? (Answer: only fools are proud of either.) And if it's only a matter of glorified common sense, what need of a fusspot Fowler?