Though Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars declares itself a history of arguments over the nature of proper English, it's really a polemic. That's okay; The Language Wars is never more engaging than when Hitchings revels in a vigorous defense of a descriptive way of looking at the English language, whether it's exposing the dangerous jingoism of "pure English" or pithily observing that "[t]o expect a natural language to behave like mathematics is akin to expecting a child to behave like an iPod."
Of course, I find Hitchings persuasive partly because I was already persuaded. Like Hitchings, I believe that carping about the "rules" of English is not only irritating but the product of a mistaken view of how language works. Several times in the past few months I've been caught in arguments about the news that certain dictionaries have decided to include "figuratively" in their definitions of the word "literally." Most people are surprised to find that I think the decision is the correct one. The purpose of a dictionary, I say, is to act as a record of English usage, not a set of fiats to follow. It is possible to lament the shifting usage of the word "literally"--I too cringe when I hear it used as an intensifier--without pretending that offenders are violating some invisible rule of ironclad law.
Hitchings surveys the history of the English language from its "modern" roots in the fifteenth century to shows that these arguments have always been going on. Taken as a whole, the book reads like a pantheon of pedants, from crusty old coots inventing rules from the premise that English should act like Latin to crackpots who want to "purify" English spelling and grammar to make it more rigid, scientific, English, or American. Sometimes it's funny--did you know that eighteenth century grammarian Lindley Murray argued against using the relative pronoun who when referring to children because "We hardly consider children as persons, because that term gives us the idea of reason and reflection?" Humorous too are the lists of words that were once thought of as pernicious, including mob, which Jonathan Swift hated, or electrocution, gullible, standpoint, and autograph. Sometimes it's frightening--instead of giving an example from the book, maybe just recall this.
The most powerful thing, in fact, about The Language Wars, is how well it details just how entangled the idea of "proper English" is with some very nasty assumptions about race, class, nationality, gender, and power. Still, I have to voice my admiration a little for nineteenth century writer and favorite of Thomas Hardy's, William Barnes, whom Hitchings pokes fun at for his attempts to eradicate Latinisms from English in favor of Anglo-Saxon words:
Barnes preferred wheelsaddle to bicycle -- a detail quoted by Hardy in his obituary of Barnes in 1886 -- and nipperlings to forceps. More alarming, perhaps, was his suggestion that leechcraft was better than medicine. But not all his proposals were shunned: it was Barnes who revived the Old Enligh term Wessex, steeped in associations with paganism and Saxon kingship, and we can see a Barnesian flavour in the use of foreword and handbook instead of preface and manual.
Attempts to return English to its Anglo-Saxon roots, as Hitchings points out, have often been tinged with xenophobia and racism. But foreword IS better than preface, and sunprint more evocative than photograph. I could get behind using inwit rather than conscience. But I don't know that Barnes even lived to see the worst of Latinisms, which really clog up academic, legal, and professional writing--expedite over hasten, deracinate over uproot, et cetera. (Excuse me--and others.) Hitchings' goal is to expose the shoddiness of prescriptivism, I know, not give style advice, but for such a clear stylist, I think he's often reluctant to identify genuine good advice about language. "Avoid using literally when you mean figuratively" is not a rule. But it is good advice.