‘What a Word!’ by A.P. Herbert

I’m currently reading this 1935 rant by ‘APH’ (later Sir Alan Herbert, CH) on the misuse of words. It has a similar goal to ‘Plain Words’, written by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1954, but it’s rather more humorous – much of it originally appeared in Punch. It’s very dated now; many of the neologisms that APH hated are now in common use, and few will remember that ult, inst and prox used to be common in business letters.


One of his complaints is about dictionaries. Working mainly from the Shorter Oxford, he points out that dictionaries merely record that a word has been used, and that just because a word is in the dictionary, having been used in 17something, doesn’t mean it should be used now. (An example is “coronate”, which I commented on recently when it appeared in a newspaper article.)


He wished that there was a dictionary along the lines of Fowler’s, giving guidance on good English. In fact, such a dictionary does exist now; it’s the Oxford Dictionary of English, and it’s my bible for proofreading. The most recent edition was published in 2010, and it could do with an update. (Don’t buy the Kindle edition, by the way; you can get it free on a Kindle.) I wonder what APH would have made of it.

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