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How Fowler became 'The Fowler': an anatomy of a success story

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 May 2010

Abstract

Dictionary of Modern English Usage, short forms Modern English Usage, MEU. The best-known usage manual of the 20C, compiled by H. W. Fowler and published by Oxford University Press in 1926 […]. This work in particular has made the name Fowler as well known among those interested in usage and the language as Johnson and Webster, a point of reference for both those who venerate and those who regret what he has had to say.” (Burchfield, 1992a: 311)

If the quotation above is anything to go by, it tells us two things, namely that Fowler's Modern English Usage [MEU] is regarded as the best-known usage manual of the 20th century and that opinions about Fowler are highly controversial. Works like the Fowler Brothers' (1906) The King's English [KE] and Henry W. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) [MEU-1] can be regarded as role models for usage handbooks in Britain. The immense success and popularity, especially of the latter work, with new editions in 1965 (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers) [MEU-2] and in 1996 (further revised by Robert Burchfield) [MEU-3], calls for an explanation. In order to reveal the relationship between authority and success, the present article places MEU and its predecessor KE in their socio-historical contexts and then gives a detailed account of the success story of MEU. It analyses the book's reception in its three editions and its treatment in English-language histories and introductory textbooks to the English language.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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