Death Sentence: The decay of public language
Knopf, $29.95 hb, 198 pp
In 1755 Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language. In the preface, he laments the chaotic state of the language: ‘When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules; wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled and confusion to be regulated.’ He despaired at the scope and futility of his task:
Among these happy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths, through which Learning and Genius press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.