One woozy afternoon, the former department chair admitted that they had, in fact, hired one of my junior colleagues by mistake — the secretary confused the two lists of candidates and called to offer him the job, and the chair was too gentlemanly to withdraw it — but that I shouldn’t worry: they actually had wanted me. But what they wanted me for was unclear. Junior faculty, at that time, had no courses of their own. They “precepted” for senior faculty. It really didn’t matter what our dissertations had been on. We were the grading faculty. Colleagues who were ahead of me in years of service got their pick of whom to serve as “preceptors”: the charismatic Chaucerian, the baronial Americanist, the aristocratic Shakespearian. Someone, perhaps the very secretary who had called the wrong candidate, found out that I had done the English philology degree at Oxford. And so, as a tenure-track TA, in the interview suit I wore every teaching day for the entire first semester, I was assigned to “precept” the history of the English language.
The course had been taught for the past two decades by a professor who had grown up in Denmark, had worked his way across the United States after World War II as a carnival barker, and had wound up at the University of Minnesota to write a dissertation on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. His textbook was the Baugh and Cable History, supplemented by mimeographed handouts — which his previous preceptor had diligently prepared in the 1970s before being summarily denied tenure — on such subjects as ablaut and i-mutation, the development of the Indo-European long vowels, and the classes of the Germanic strong verbs. Lectures were unscripted, mostly rambling accounts of how Rasmus Rask really discovered Grimm’s Law before Grimm (it was left to me, in section, to explain just what Grimm’s Law was and why it mattered), or what the American language sounded like in 1947 to a Danish carnival barker in Minnesota. I led my sections, desperate to convey some relevant information to the students, conjuring assignments out of the old mimeos: please arrange the following Old English verbs according to their classes; trace the history of the long a in a stressed position; explain the relationship between doom and deem; how does the following selection from the Paston Letters offer evidence of the Great Vowel Shift? At the end of the term, my wife and I invited the professor for dinner, and he brought along the student evaluations for the course. We sat at our table over the pots de crème my wife had made for dessert, and he read aloud: professor is a waste, preceptor was great; preceptor saved the course; my parents paid for this? The last was a long screed that ended with a remembrance of one particular session, during which the professor had regaled the students with a story of how, at a carnival in the late 1940s, his job had been to present Edna Mae Miller in her Iron Lung; apparently he had not only spent an entire lecture telling the story, but, on the following day, had started it again, stopping only when a student reminded him that he had already told it.
The professor sat quietly at the table, the pile of evaluations in front of him, chewing his mustache, until finally he blurted out: Well, that’s it. You teach the course. And so, the following year, I began what would become an eight-year stint of teaching the history of the English language on my own.
Whatever the content of this course, its social function was to generate a sense of shared belonging in an undergraduate community that prided itself on its origins and legacy. For many of these students, English was their language, just as Princeton was their university. The history of the language shaped a teleology for their identities: it moved from earthiness to elegance. Baugh and Cable’s chapter on the early modern period, “The Triumph of English,” resonated with their expectations. When I illustrated how the modern words for animals were Anglo-Saxon (cow, sheep, deer, sow) and those for meats were French (beef, mutton, venison, pork), and how this stratified vocabulary looked back to an older tension between servitude and conquest, many of the students smiled, their intuitions betraying their ease.
For me, this course was a way of passing. My ability to recall details of philology, to read Shakespeare in the historical pronunciation, to remember all the funny definitions from Dr. Johnson — all this enhanced my own sense of belonging to their group. My teaching of the history of English became the medium for professional identity formation, and what my students of the 1980s mostly wanted — a fluid ability to recall detail, a mastery of memorized passages, a rationale for going through the details of sound changes — I gave them. I prided myself on the fact that I was one of the very few assistant professors with a course of his own. But, in practice, I was still precepting: still teaching for somebody else, still serving an authoritative and judgmental group.
My memories of nearly 40 years ago may shade a bit to caricature, but I don’t believe I am far off. When I moved to Stanford in the 1990s, the history of English meant something completely different. Increasingly, my classes filled themselves with students who had grown up with another home language. The politics of California English opened up debates about official languages, about bilingual education, and about citizenship and colonialization. One student patiently explained to me that, in spite of his last name, his family had been on this continent since the 18th century and, as he put it, “We’re Americans because the border changed.”
I adapted. Middle English became open to discussions about creolization. The British Middle Ages emerged as a bi-, if not a tri-lingual period. When Caxton asked what form of English would be suitable for printing literature, we debated the questions of social and regional variation. The history of spelling became a history of impositions, and I came to realize that one of the major reasons for the split between our modern spellings and pronunciations was the conviction of certain pedagogues and scholars of the 18th century that spelling should preserve historical, rather than current, forms. This was a powerful assertion for my classes: Could we legislate our language? Should the role of teachers be to prescribe practice? And when we looked at Johnson, Webster, and the OED, we asked: Is the role of the dictionary to tell us what to say and write, or is it to describe how we speak and write? More pointedly, is every description really a prescription, especially when it comes from a figure of authority?
The history of English came to serve as a vehicle for debates on power. Its study offered not a narrative of belonging but one of exclusion. We read it for its tensions rather than its triumphs. Baugh and Cable no longer sufficed. Few textbooks spoke directly to these students’ interests. And, as I came to be involved increasingly in public lectures on the history and condition of English — through libraries, community and alumni groups, and eventually through the Teaching Company course I developed — I came to realize that any discussion of the English language was an occasion for defining one’s class, one’s age, one’s gender, or one’s cultural identity.
After 30 years at private universities, I became a dean at a regional campus of a large public institution. And after six years of deaning, I returned to the classroom. My students are increasingly first-generation undergraduates, coming to college along vectors of success shaped by their parents. English, for many of them, is a tool for advancement rather than an object of reflection. Their education has been instrumentalized for their vocations. The details that I used to display for the purposes of belonging or for debate now become the pyrotechnics of my teaching. Old English has a meaning for my students through the fantasies of Tolkien. Latinate rigor comes filtered through the scrim of Harry Potter.
I play another role. Forty-five years older than the undergraduates, I come to them as a preserver of the past. Philology is distanced, even ironized, and when I teach about the Norman Conquest or the Great Vowel Shift it is more often not to help them understand themselves but to help them understand me — just what kind of person would care about these things, would find them intellectually fascinating, and would live for the love of sharing what he knows with others, irrespective of its social use.
I remain convinced that the study of the history of English aids in current debates on usage, on languages in contact, immigration, bilingualism, social change, and personal identity. The past decade has seen something of a backlash against changes in our language: as if students simply revel in ungrammaticality, as if popular music and online culture has debased our forms of expression, as if all the iPhone generation does these days is eat, shoot, and leave. I strain to find poetics in variety, to find something creative in what others would call crass. I still hold on to H. L. Mencken’s brilliant and self-consciously rhetorical account of the American speaker, originally published in 1919:
The American, from the beginning, has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians. His politics bristles with pungent epithets; his whole history has been bedizened with tall talk; his fundamental institutions rest far more upon brilliant phrases than upon logical ideas. He exercises continually an incomparable capacity for projecting hidden and often fantastic relationships into his speech.
I teach this passage for its style as well as its content. For here is Mencken the lexicographer, the self-conscious manipulator of the word. Words from all languages and histories enter the maw of English: bristle, from Middle English, probably by way of Dutch, a verb recorded as early as the 15th century; pungent, from Late Latin, meaning sharp or piercing, which came by the 19th century to mean an irritating or a smelly thing; and bedizened, a word of debatable etymology, emerging in the 18th century to mean dressed up with vulgar finery. The brilliance of this passage shines, I try to show, thanks to Mencken’s understanding of the history of words, his genius for juxtaposition — taking a word like bedizened (which Mencken probably found in The Beaux’ Stratagem) and butting it up against the incontestably American alliterations of “tall talk” (the OED has a quotation from 1869, Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual, “What the Yankees call ‘tall talk’”).
I teach this passage, too, to illustrate the ways in which the dictionary is itself a product of these idioms and ideologies. The OED, now online and continuously updated, serves not just as a source of information but as a repository of social history. The recent fascination with its origins in Victorian philology and imperial aspiration has profoundly shaded our impressions of its definitions and decisions. My Princeton colleague’s work from the 1950s and ’60s did, in fact, anticipate this cultural turn to lexicographical history. The makers of the OED, he claimed, had set out to write the biography of both a language and a culture, and 19th-century philology was the science of sciences — a method of explaining social evolution in the etymology of a word. More recent studies have revealed the deep cultural conflicts in this history. What does it mean, for example, to find in Sir James A. H. Murray’s proud announcement, to the Philological Society in 1884, that work on the Dictionary was proceeding well, and that he and his colleagues were as “pioneers, pushing our way experimentally through an untrodden forest, where no white man’s axe has been before us”? And what does it mean that, in Lynda Mugglestone’s collection of essays on the OED, Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in an Untrodden Forest, the phrase “white man’s” is silently erased in her quotation from the text behind her title? The dots of her ellipses may say more about the still fraught politics of language than I can in the space of this essay.
What does it mean to turn to the lexicon often used by my current undergraduates, the brilliantly subversive urbandictionary.com, with its exultant lists of body parts and sex acts, and come upon this definition for “English”: “A language that lurks in dark alleys beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary”? What I had once taught as the glorious voracity of our vocabulary becomes, in this phrasing, the greed of a mugger. Noah Webster wrote, in the preface to his American Dictionary of 1828, that Americans had “a right to adopt new words,” as if the lexicon could grow justly and benignly, as if we were taking up a lost child (Webster’s own definition of “to adopt” reads: “to take a stranger into one’s family, as son and heir”). Nearly two centuries later, urbandictionary.com transforms this Websterian act of generosity into a petty crime.
When I began to teach, I’d hoped to be adopted: to be taken, as a stranger, as an heir, to be given (to continue Webster’s definition) “a title to the privileges and rights” of my profession. Such neediness may not define a current generation of professionals — caught in the web of contract teaching, the defunding of the liberal arts, and students who see courses as lines on a résumé rather than cultural lineages. Still, I believe that the history of the English language lies along the fault line of adoption and rifling, and that it is a fault line worth mapping.
Among the many changes in technologies of language that have made the world of 1981 incomprehensible to students of 2019, digital social media may be the most transformative. The first recorded use of the phrase “social media” in the OED dates to 2004, but it is their quotation from The New York Times from 2008 that, for me, is most telling case: “One of the main reasons people embrace social media — Facebook, for instance — is to create identities for themselves and control other people’s perceptions of them.” I have argued, in my teaching and writing, that the history of the English language is a history of people creating identities for themselves. Facebook, email, text messaging, the iPhone — they change us as language has always changed us. What we will see in the future is not a debased, abandoned English but a new stratification along social, age, and class lines. There will be the English of the classroom, of the street, of the screen, of the parent, and of the child. My grandchildren may think of themselves as working in Englishes rather than just English. Teaching the history of the language to these as yet-unborn students will be as important as it is now, as it will help them phrase the central social and political questions of their time. And if I’m still teaching at that point, I may seem to them as curious as a carnival barker: speaking an adopted language, selling strangeness to a classroom, asking everyone to come in and see something they had never seen before.
Seth Lerer is Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego. His books include Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Truman Capote Prize in Criticism), the memoir Prospero's Son, and most recently Shakespeare's Lyric Stage.