H. W. Fowler and the Angry Grammarian

So I am walking up Broadway the other day…

…And I decide to rattle into the Strand. But they have these carts of discounted books parked outside, like quills on a fat, old porcupine, and even though it was freezing-too-cold I first trolled down the sidewalk.

Right away, I spotted “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” by H. W. Fowler (Oxford University Press, 1950). Squealing with joy like a deranged schoolboy, I trampled several people and ripped the book from the shelf. And after the brawl I started calmed down, I raced inside and slammed the book on the checkout counter like I was spiking a football. (Disclaimer: The Strand does not like it when you do things like that.)

English: Frontispiece of Fowler's Modern Engli...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is famous, for a usage guide, anyway; and for decades it represented the last word on the subject, for the Brits, anyway. For anyone with even a passing interest in how words ought to be stitched together, it’s a charming collection of notes, directives and outright screeds, even if some of its advice has passed into irrelevance — or the wrong side of standard usage. It includes long, un-self-conscious entries on subjects like didacticism and pedantry (Seriously!), and the results are as ironic as they are delicious. In enjoining and remonstrating, at least to anglophilic American ears, Mr. Fowler strikes a consistently cantankerous tone, which only adds to the charm — if you ask me.

Consider the entry for the word “antagonize,” Pages 25-26 of my 1950 edition.

Now, my copy of “Garner’s Modern American Usage” doesn’t bother with the word, neither does the Stylebook; but Mr. Fowler, fittingly, has more than a little to say on the subject.

His first aim, it seems, is to discourage writers from using antagonize as a synonym for words like oppose and counteract. And resist. And neutralize. Mr. Fowler allows that such uses are blessed by the dictionary — for him, the venerable Oxford English Dictionary; for us, of course, it’s Webster’s Fourth — but he is skeptical. For one thing, he writes smugly, “the OED quotations for it are far from impressive,” — take that, you Oxford pukes! — “& it may safely be said that the occasions are rare indeed when one of those words would not be preferable to it.”

Now, am I the only one who thinks it’s odd that the persnickety Mr. Fowler is totally on board with the ampersand? Answer: Probably. The ampersand, back in the day, was not the languorous joiner of stuffy last names we know today. It was a far more muscular workhorse, and for a long time it was considered to be the 27th letter of the alphabet. (Seriously!)

It is said — though this has to be complete [expletive deleted] — that the name ampersand comes from generations of alphabet-reciting schoolchildren, happy to finally be at the end of the list, who mashed together “and per se and” (i.e. “and, by itself, ‘and’”) into one mumbly word. A mumbly word of the type known as a mondegreen (“words that result from the mishearing or misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric”), but perhaps more on that when we reach the letter M. Or start talking about Manfred Mann. 

But back to antagonize.

Such uses of the word, he writes, always produce “an effect of vulgar display.” And that is Mr. Fowler in a nutshell.

— No. Wait.

There is this, the first sentence in his even-more-popular guide to writing, “The King’s English,” (my copy is a Wordsworth Editions reprint from 1993):

Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavor, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

Did you get that? In advising that a writer be simple, Mr. Fowler fairly clubs the poor soul into submission with four more synonyms. You will be direct! (WHAM!) You will be simple! (WHAM!) You will

That is Mr. Fowler in a nutshell. Which is where he might have lived, I add jokingly, though I am far from an expert on the subject. And having done so, I feel a little bad about it. (Mr. Fowler was not without human feelings; my edition of his usage dictionary has a moving dedication that he wrote to his brother and writing partner, who died before their dictionary was finished.)

But, seriously, back to antagonize.

Mr. Fowler includes a few examples of what not to do, which I truncate here for no good reason: “Socrates ends by saying we should antagonize gambling…”; “…the very ideals which Labour collectively professes to antagonize…”; and “The Democrats have given notice of a determination to antagonize this…”

“The last,” he writes by way of commentary, “is from the OED, which states that this use (person opposing thing) is American English only.” Mr. Fowler continues, slowly winding up for a roundhouse punch, “The first two examples show that it has since appeared in England,” a blow that he delivers with deadly accuracy, if not restraint, “it is to be hoped than it may not last on either side of the Atlantic.”

Having thoroughly staked out his side of the boxing ring, Mr. Fowler advances to his opponent’s corner. He adds, with a grump’s relish, that there is a use of the word that “does good service & should certainly not the banned.”

That is to rouse or incur the hostility of, to expose oneself by one’s action to the enmity of. This sense probably comes also from America, where it is commoner than in England; but its usefulness is so obvious that we should welcome it.

Like I said, it’s fitting. And at the risk of antagonizing the fusty ghost of Mr. Fowler and his brother, I add that the whooshing sound you just heard was millions of English speakers sighing in relief.


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