Is it ‘Mornington Crescent’?

Alex Oliver

  • The Warden of English: The Life of H.W. Fowler by Jenny McMorris
    Oxford, 242 pp, £19.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 19 866254 8

Jenny McMorris’s biography marked the 75th anniversary of Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. He is, it’s fair to say, remembered for that book (known, simply, as Fowler) and not for his work as a lexicographer. Fowler is the sacred text of the linguistically self-conscious. McMorris quotes a distinguished judge who ‘had been kept from his bed by it “to a very unusual hour”, adding that it brought “a terror to living and writing”’. A.J.P. Taylor read the whole thing at least once a year, and ranked it as OUP’s greatest publication. Aficionados regularly recite Fowler on split infinitives, as if it were Monty Python on ex-parrots. And nearly seventy years after his death, letters for him still arrive at the Press.

Strangely, Oxford rejected the initial proposal, on the ground that ‘a Utopian dictionary would sell very well – in Utopia.’ But they soon cottoned on, and 60,000 copies of Fowler were sold in the first year. It has remained in print through three editions, and its form and content have been copied, textbook fashion, in the usage manuals that now appear on every publisher’s list. We’re all reading Fowler, even if we don’t know it.

Why did Fowler write Fowler? There was, it seems, ‘word-consciousness’ in his family, and a tradition of teaching. Before becoming a schoolmaster, his father was a mathematics don at Cambridge. Henry himself went from Rugby to Balliol. But he never fulfilled his promise, and left with a disappointing degree and a bog-standard reference from Jowett, the Master: ‘quite a gentleman in manner and feeling . . . a natural aptitude for the profession of Schoolmaster’. He taught for two terms at Fettes in Edinburgh, then landed at Sedbergh on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. There he gained a reputation for ‘Spartan discipline’ and ‘great fastidiousness’, including top hat and tails for Sunday tea.

After a 17-year slog in this ‘intellectually stagnant’ school, Fowler fled to Chelsea, hoping to make it as an essayist. There was an early breakthrough in the Spectator, but his shyness held him back from the networking needed for success in literary journalism. He must also have quickly realised that he wasn’t up to it. His prose was sweet and sentimental, with a tedious, knowing tone which was perhaps suited to schoolboys but not to the cognoscenti, as shown by the vicious notices of his later collection of essays Si Mihi – !: ‘He is merely shallow and – oh! so banal and trite’; ‘a true autobiography of a second-rate soul’.

Henry bolted again, this time to join Frank, his younger brother, who was growing tomatoes in Guernsey. They impressed OUP with a translation of Lucian, and from then on were virtually full-time employees of the Press. Next came The King’s English (1906), which provided some of the content for the later Fowler. It begins on the same note: ‘Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.’ Oxford recognised the Fowlers’ extraordinary ability to collect and classify, and persuaded them to produce the Concise and Pocket dictionaries as fundraisers for the still incomplete OED. While they were making dictionaries they hit on the idea of refashioning The King’s English in dictionary format in order to eliminate its stodginess. Since Henry was suffering from ‘misolexicography’, he worked on Fowler, while Frank did the Pocket. The plan was to swap halfway through, but Henry was left to finish both when Frank died of TB in 1918.

Fowler didn’t create the need for Fowler; its niche was ready-made. He knew the public craved a dictator to lay down the laws of usage. Bad grammar had always been construed as a sign of bad character, since grammar shades into linguistic style and from there to etiquette and even morality. McMorris quotes a review of Fowler from the Methodist Recorder: ‘a volume on table-manners, good breeding, purity of mind, cleanness of habit, self-respect and public decency’.

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