Fowler into the OED

In 2009, the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) was reprinted by Oxford University Press, as part of their World Classics Series. In the introduction, David Crystal assesses Fowler’s status as a writer of this popular usage guide, as well as the book itself. The book was so popular, 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 – FowlerianFowlerishFowleresque – 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 Oxford English Dictionary, unlike someone like Webster, though this is 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”.

Fowler, however, regularly occurs as a term or, indeed a common noun. Here are several examples:

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 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, OxfordUniversity Press. “… while … Churchill, planning the invasion of Normandy, snapped at an aide to check a word in ‘Fowler’.”

Most strongly, perhaps, the following quotation, also from Finegan, suggests  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.”

Last year, moreover, a special issue came out of English Today, with an article by Ulrich Busse and Anne Schröder, called “How Fowler became ‘The Fowler’: an anatomy of a success story” (see also the post of 13 September called “Special issue of English Today”).

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. Ao how close can we get to 1926, the book’s original publication date?

And what about Crystal’s FowlerianFowlerishFowleresque? These occur as well: the online newspaper database Factiva produced several instances of all of them. The earliest instance of Fowleresque found so far dates from 1993. But this word also occurs in the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

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

So there is plenty of evidence for these words, and it’ll be interesting to see how more evidence is needed for the OED editors to pick all this up and give Fowler an entry in the dictionary at last.

(With thanks to Nadia Petrova.)

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