Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Musée des Peevologies

Though I do not aspire to be its curator, a collection of the historical representations of peevology* should be of some use to the student of language. Some readers may already be aware of the rich repository of examples at Language Log. I have some material near at hand that could be considered for exhibition in the musée.

In 1710, for example, Jonathan Swift complained in The Spectator about “the deplorable ignorance that for some years hath reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style.” Two years later he published “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” in which he advocated formation of an English Academy of notables, based on the French model, to superintend the language. The proposal had no legs then, and it has none now.

The estimable Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe is bringing out an edition — soon to be examined here — of Ambrose Bierce’s style guide, Write It Right, annotating Bierce’s quirky advice, often based on minute distinctions that no modern eye can discern.

In 1962 — 1962, one of the last of the Good Years, in which the echoes of the Fifties sounded in all ears — Dwight Macdonald published Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture. My crumbling paperback copy includes “Updating the Bible,” a jeremiad about the Revised Standard Version of the English Bible of 1952; “The String Untuned,” an examination of the descriptivist wickedness of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged); and “The Decline and Fall of English,” a fusillade at the wanton perversity of linguists and pedagogues.

Not on the shelves but in the garage with the other books from my former office at The Sun, is The State of the Language, an anthology edited thirty or so years ago by Christopher Ricks. You may recall some of the menaces of the Seventies — hopefully used as a sentence adverb, and the Episcopal Church’s carelessness in revising the Book of Common Prayer into texts comprehensible to worshipers.

All of these works grow increasingly quaint with the passage of time. More to the point, all illustrate components of the peevologist personality, a subject to which I plan to return in a future post. For now, as it occurs to you what exhibits you would like to see displayed in the musée, by all means suggest them.

*peevology (n.) An analysis of faults, often imaginary, in language usage, arbitrarily pronounced by self-anointed experts, the analysis typically revealing rank prejudice and cultural bias.

**When I see the plaint “I want my America back” at rallies against health care reform, I tend to think that it is the Fifties the loss of which is so keenly felt — that blessed age when blacks were at the back of the bus, gays in the closet, women in the kitchen, and white men in the White House. But I digress.