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Happy Birthday Fowler!


Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Henry Watson Fowler. Fowler worked as a teacher and freelance writer before going to Guernsey to form a remarkably successful writing partnership with his brother Francis. Most notably, the Fowler brothers wrote The King’s English (1906), and compiled the first edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary in 1911. Henry Fowler finished the Pocket Oxford Dictionary in 1924, before going on to write Modern English Usage, which made him a household name, in 1926. Fowler’s Modern English Usage is now in its third edition – by Robert Burchfield – and is a standard reference tool the world over.

Next year OUP will be republishing the original first edition in hardback, and in June this year, we will be publishing a new edition of the paperback Pocket Fowler. However, to celebrate his 150th birthday today, I have selected a few of my favourite pieces of advice from Burchfield’s 2004 revised third edition, some of which look back at how language usage has changed since Henry Fowler’s day.

fowler-meu.jpgclever. Fowler (1926) wrote a splendidly prejudiced piece about the misuse of clever, ‘especially in feminine conversation’ in the sense of ‘learned, well-read, bookish, or studious’. It is sufficient perhaps just to recognize that clever is normally a term of approbation ( = skilful, talented; quick to understand and learn, as COD has it), but that it can be used contextually with severe limitations placed upon it, implying slickness or mere ingenuity (clever Dick, too clever by half, etc).

knock up. First-time visitors from Britain to the US need to be reminded that the BrE [British English] sense ‘to arouse (a person) by a knock at the door’ is not known in America, where the same phrasal verb is a slang way of saying ‘to make pregnant’.

England, English. England is of course the southern part of the island of Great Britain with the exception of Wales; but in practice, because the population of England is much greater than that of the other parts of the United Kingdom, because the seat of government is in London, and for broad historical reasons, the name is sometimes loosely used for the whole of Great Britain, a use that is understandably resented in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

bunkum. The word meaning ‘clap-trap, humbug’ is one of the best-known American words to have spread to all English-speaking countries. Its origin is less well known. It is a respelling of Buncombe, the name of a county in N. Carolina. The phrase arose in America in the 1820s when the member of congress for that county needlessly delayed a vote near the close of a debate on the ‘Missouri question’. The speaker insisted, however, that he was bound to make a speech for Buncombe in order to impress his constituents.

oblique stroke. An extract from a letter (11 Oct. 1992) from a friend in the diplomatic service: ‘FCO-speak, or rather FCO-write, is currently… littered with the oblique stroke or slash, entailing constant ambiguity – is it an indolent substitute for “or”, or “and”, or “I don’t know which and can’t be bothered to decide between them”?’ Well, which is it?

feature (verb). Fowler tended to be nervous about new uses coming into widespread use of English from the general direction of Hollywood. The use of feature, he said, ‘in cinema announcements instead of represent or exhibit is perhaps from America… it is to be feared that from the cinema bills it will make its way into popular use, which would be a pity.’ He cited an unattributed example of 1924: Boys’ school and college outfits, men’s footwear and under-garments, as well as…, are also featured. His words went unheeded.

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