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Van Winkle's Return: CHANGE IN AMERICAN ENGLISH, 1966-1986 by Kenneth G. Wilson (University Press of New England: $18, hardcover; $10.95, paperback; 208 pp.) : Good Words to You: AN ALL-NEW BROWSER'S DICTIONARY AND NATIVE'S GUIDE TO THE UNKNOWN AMERICAN LANGUAGE by John Ciardi (Harper & Row: $19.95; 343 pp.)

July 12, 1987|John Espey | Espey is professor emeritus of literature at UCLA.

During the first years of his academic life, Kenneth Wilson taught English at the University of Connecticut and published "The History of the English Language," "The Harbrace Guide to Dictionaries," and "English Grammars and the Grammar of English." In other words, he was a respectable member of the teaching profession and a productive scholar. Then, and I quote, "I wandered off and fell asleep: I became a college dean and a university vice president." Thus he illustrated one of our few native American academic proverbs, "Gain a dean and lose a scholar." But from the wit and good will with which he salutes his return to the world of the living, I cannot believe that he in any way lent support to the personal sub-corollary of that old saw: "Gain a dean and lose a friend." Certainly in my own academic life, some of my closest friends have been or are. . . .

Unlike many a dean and vice president, Wilson finally pulled himself together and sleepwalked out of the administration building. After four or five years of working himself back into the linguistic picture, he has now produced this enlightening and entertaining work on the changes that were taking place in American English during his 20-year nap.

Before Wilson had dozed off completely, the Great American Dictionary War had begun, opening with the publication of "Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language" ("Webster III"). To save space, its editors had removed the encyclopedic entries of "Webster II," and strict traditionalists felt that the new edition was governed by "permissiveness" rather than "correctness." The conflict still rages, but for present purposes, it should suffice to say that Wilson naturally turned to dictionaries to ease himself back into full consciousness, and here he found enormous aid in those uniquely American publications, the collegiate dictionaries.

Because of the Dictionary War, "Webster's Collegiate" had lost its stranglehold on the market, and today Wilson considers the four best works of this sort to be, in alphabetical order, "The American Heritage Dictionary" (second college edition), "The Random House College Dictionary" (revised edition), "Webster's New World Dictionary" (second college edition) and "Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary."

Of these four, "American Heritage" is the most conservative, judged on its exclusion of certain words considered for years by lexicographers to be too vulgar or obscene for inclusion in works of reference compiled for innocent collegians, though every parent knows that the two most common are the first words the kids bring home from the nursery school playground for explication. Their general acceptance was accelerated by the GI Bill; for as Ezra Pound wryly observed in one of the "Pisan Cantos":

the army vocabulary contains almost 48 words

one verb and participle one substantive . . .

one adjective and one phrase sexless that is

used as a sort of pronoun

from a watchman's club to a vamp or fair lady

After commenting on what has happened to the vulgar and obscene, Wilson goes on to "Bad Words" and "Worse Words" as well as a brilliant discussion of the feminist movement's effect on language in "The Battle of the Sexes."

Wilson is excellent on generation gaps. I am 10 years older than he and a son of the manse. Thus, when I saw the appellation "the Reverend Jackson" in one of his examples for discussion I anticipated a rebuke over this increasingly common illiterate usage, expecting him to require either "the Reverend Jesse Jackson" or "the Reverend Mr. Jackson." But this was not his concern in the sentence. On this, as on the use of hopefully , and the shall/will distinction, Wilson has sensibly yielded. He retains a few uses of the subjunctive but has pretty much given up on which and that . Having written manse above, I offer him for observation the slow return of its use in what for over a century was labeled an obsolete meaning, equivalent to mansion . Another word to keep an eye on is jejune , which is increasingly used by those with a smattering of French and little knowledge of the lower digestive tract as equivalent to "youthful," as in "the promising poet's jejune publications."

"Van Winkle's Return" is an important book for anyone interested in the language and the state of the Republic. Its concluding chapter on bilingual education should be read by all teachers and every citizen interested in genuine equality for all, difficult as it may be for some to accept. "The only bilingualism we can countenance is the old kind: the full mastery of both our native tongue and one other. Nothing short of that will do for any of us."

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