Fowler into OED

In September this year, a facsimile reprint was published by Oxford University Press, as part of their World Classics Series, of the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926). The edition includes an introduction from David Crystal, in which he assesses Fowler’s status … … as a writer of this popular usage guide as well as the book itself. The book was so popular that, Crystal writes (2009:vii), that “within a few years, people no longer felt it necessary even to mention the title and talked simply of ‘Fowler'”.

Crystal continues: “Adjectives soon followed — Fowlerian, Fowlerish, Fowleresque — and he eventually received the ultimate linguistic accolade, of being turned into a common noun”. But Fowler, as a term or otherwise, does not have an entry in the OED, unlike Webster, who actually has an encyclopedic rather than a linguistic entry. But he still has a place in the dictionary, and so does Websterian, “Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Webster’s Dictionary (see prec.) or any of its later versions or abridgements”.

This semester, I taught an MA course at the English Department of the University of Leiden, called “Normative Linguistics: The Case of Fowler”, and in the course of our reading we regularly came across the use of Fowler as a term or, indeed a common noun. We collected several instances of them in the process of our reading:

Kingsley Amis, The King’s English (1997:75), “This work, known for many years simply as Modern English Usage, is also known even more simply as Fowler in expressions like ‘Fowler’s view’ and ‘Fowler is unambiguous on the point'”.

Edward Finegan, (1998:578). “English Grammar and Usage”, in Suzanne Romaine (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 536-88. “To this day, three-quarters of a century after its initial publication in 1926, connoisseurs consult ‘Fowler’ on the finer ponts of usage, much as ordinary citizens consult ‘the dictionary’ for guidance about spellings, meanings, and pronunciations.”

Jenny McMorris (2001:217)), The Warden of English. The Life of H. W. Fowler, Oxford: University Press. “… while … Churchill, planning the invasion of Normandy, snapped at an aide to check a word in ‘Fowler’.”

Perhaps the following quotation, also from Finegan, suggests most strongly that Fowler deserves his place in the OED, alongside Webster:

Finegan (1998:578): “As the name ‘Webster’ is synonymous with dictionary in some parts of the English-speaking world, ‘Fowler’ continues to mean honoured handbook of usage throughout.”

In October last year I organised a workshop on Normative Linguistics as part of the first ISLE conference in Freiburg. Ten papers were presented at the workshop, including David Crystal’s introduction to his forthcoming edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. It was striking that three-quarters of the papers, in one way or another, dealt with Fowler! One even had Fowler in its title: “How Fowler became ‘The Fowler’: an anatomy of a success story”, by
Ulrich Busse and Anne Schröder, and in my own paper, on the rise of the usage guide as a text type, I used the word similarly:

“According to the ODNB, Churchill is believed to have been ‘academically a bit of a dunce’; perhaps, too, he felt linguistically insecure enough to need his Fowler, even in times of crucial action.”

Fowler, therefore, deserves an entry in the OED. But the earliest quotation we collected dates from 1997: there should be earlier ones, if we may believe David Crystal, and the challenge will be to find one as close to 1926, the book’s original publication date, as possible. So I hereby invite readers to submit them if they happen to come across them in our reading, in a joint effort to try and give Fowler his rightful place in the OED.

And what about Crystal’s Fowlerian, Fowlerish, Fowleresque? I can’t remember coming across many instances of these words in our course reading. But they do occur: the newspaper database Factive, which is available online in our university, produced several instances of all of them. The earliest instance of Fowleresque dates from 1993. For this word, we did find an antedating:

Sir Ernest Gowers (1965:xi), Modern English Usage, 2nd edition: “his point could be put more simply without any sacrifice of Fowleresque flavour.”

Though the revision process of the OED started at M and has currently proceeded down to refulgent, editorial practice has changed fairly recently, so that ” batch[es] of revised and new entries [are also added] across the alphabet” (OED website). It’ll therefore be interesting to see how soon all this will be picked up!

(With thanks to Nadia Petrova.)

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  1. Matthijs

    In reading up on Henry Louis Mencken (author of “The American Language”) I came across various adjectives such as “menckenian” and “menckenesque.” When I was looking for a definition, however, the OED only contained a rather vague entry. For “menckenesque” the OED gives the following: “Reminiscent of the style or attitudes of Mencken.” And for “menckenian” the following definition is given: “Of or characteristic of Mencken, his writings, or his style.” The only specific definition I came across was from ‘’ – though I suspect they obtained it from an extensive edition of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, or the unabridged version of Merrian-Webster’s dictionary online (or perhaps a different, but good American dictionary). In any case, “menckenian” is defined as “characterized by vitriolic social criticism (in the style of H.L. Mencken).” This definition, I think, is in keeping with the usages given for “menckenian” and “menckenesque” in the OED. I’m interested in what the NOAD (New Oxford American Dictionary) has to say about these entries.


  2. ingrid tieken

    An example of Fowlerian: used by Barbara Strang in her review of the 2nd ed. of Fowler’s MEU (1966, Modern Language Review, 264-5): “… that are not at all Fowlerian”.

  3. Nadia Petrova

    We can find the adjective Amisian (similar to Fowlerian, Fowlerish, Fowleresque) referring to Kingsley Amis in Zachery Leader’s book The Life of Kingsley Amis: “In The Biographer’s Moustache, Jimmy Fane’s snobbery is lingustic as well as social; his word-pedantry, wrongly identified as Amisian, marks him as ultimately second rate…”

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