During the years of James’s career, notable developments in language study took place in England and America. The methods of modern descriptive linguistics, imported from Germany, introduced the scientific study of language, from which laws as immutable as those governing the sciences were derived. In 1842, a year before James’s birth, the Philological Society of London was founded. In 1864, the year of James’s first published review and short story, the Early English Text Society began publishing Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts, making possible the monument of English language scholarship in the nineteenth century, the Oxford English Dictionary, eventually twenty volumes in the second edition (1989), which quoted chronologically presumably every passage in which a particular word was to be found, from its earliest use to the present day. This mammoth project, the work of several editors and hundreds of contributors, was conceived in the late 1850s by Richard C. Trench, Dean of Westminster and author of The Study of Words (1851) and English Past and Present (1855), who proposed to show how ‘words have behaved in shifting contexts through the ages’. The first volume of the OED, A-B, appeared in 1888.
Prescriptive texts, written to set the standard of ‘the best English of our day’, ranged from widely studied grammars, notably Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, in its seventh edition by 1850, to authoritative works by pillars of the establishment, such as Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, who in The Queen’s English presents the ‘laws and usages’ of good English, down to the proper use of the apostrophe, the right use of lay and lie, shall and will. Scores of informal guides to good usage, such as Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing and Writing the English Language Corrected (1856), Society Small Talk or, What to Say and When to Say It (1879) and The Manner and Rules of Good Society (1888), were unabashedly addressed to those ambitious for political or social success, if they did not aspire to join the ruling class. Readers of such books learned that upper-class speakers said ‘napkin’, not ‘serviette’; ‘luncheon’, not ‘lunch’; ‘buy’, not ‘purchase’; ‘got’, not ‘gotten’. They would learn not to betray themselves by saying ‘lady’ (for one’s wife), ‘party’ for ‘person’, ‘sweetheart’ or ‘enthuse’.