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What is ‘Proper’ English?

In this month’s New Yorker, Joan Acocella looks at English journalist Henry Hitchen’s The Language Wars: A History of Proper English (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Acocella looks back at different attempts made throughout history to codify and regulate the English-language. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage written by retired school teacher H. W. Fowler in 1926, “proper” English was that of the elite and upper-class. To George Orwell a few years later in his seminal 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” language was political; as Acocella writes “to him, our very lives depended on linguistic clarity.” But as Hitchen explores in The Language Wars, linguists in the latter half of the 20th century, opened up the idea of what was ‘proper’ English to include all types of slang and vernacular. Just look at the inclusion in recent years of words like ‘googling,’ ‘sexting,’ and ‘re-tweet’ to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So what exactly is “proper” English? An ever evolving creature all it’s own?

For those who wish to harken back to the vernacular of another time, we suggest perusing this wonderful online dictionary of Colonial American slang. “Kicksie-wicksie” may have never made it into the OED – but it’s so fun to say!

Read the full article in the New Yorker here.

One Response to “What is ‘Proper’ English?”

  1. D
    May 24, 2012 8:35 am

    Joan Acocella, the New Yorker’s dance critic, apparently feels qualified to write about English on the grounds that she is an educated native speaker and professional writer. Terrific. That doesn’t mean you automatically understand who is a prescriptivist and who is a descriptivist. She does not. For informed commentary on this article, check out the blog posts here:

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