Letter: Words that become fit for dictionaries

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Sir: Jonathon Green (Letters, 17 September) misunderstands Dr Johnson and his age if he thinks that a soundbite from the 1755 Preface settles the question of Johnson's cultural standpoint. Read it all, and you find a resigned recognition of change in the language, but not agreement with it and still less approval;

and there is no abandonment of prescription.

We must assess the author from his text. He disapproved of many 'low words' ('budge', 'clever', and 'coax' are famous examples). Of 'shabby' he wrote, 'a word that has crept into conversation and low writing, but ought not to be admitted into the language'. 'Tongues, like governments,' we are told, 'have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.' This was the spirit of the age, and he was a part of it.

My intention is not to denigrate Johnson, but to show that we now live in a different age, and that our recording of the language, especially in a dictionary of modern culture like our new Chambers Encyclopedic English Dictionary, should be free of restrictions put on the language by a (then) literary or (now) social and political elite.

Yours faithfully,


Publishing Director