Lexicon - Orthography - H.G. Fowler
The Fowler Collection
  The Lawgiver of English Usage
Henry Watson Fowler

Educated at Rugby and Oxford's Balliol College, H.W. Fowler began his career by teaching English grammar for seventeen years at a Yorkshire secondary school for boys. When offered a promotion to housemaster, he quit and move to London. There, while proving to himself that it was possible to live on 100 pound sterling a year, he was a freelance journalist. Fowler made his real mark on the English language only after moving to the remote island of Guernsey in 1903. He and his brother, Francis George Fowler, proposed to write "a sort of English composition manual, from the negative point of view, for journalists & amateur writers." The outcome, The King's English, was published by the Oxford University Press and quickly became a de facto standard. Exposing the shortcomings of eminent writers, the tome offering but five basic commandments:

1. Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
2. Prefer the concrete to the abstract.
3. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
4. Prefer the short word to the long.
5. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

The majority of "Old English" words are lost to modern usage and have no descendants. Of the small core of survivors, most are readily familiar and seldom have abstract meanings. The roots are typically short and often contain a single syllable. Some have taken on meanings only indirectly related to those in Saxon times. And, others are downright awkward in contemporary usage. Fowler addressed these point in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926 and still in print. He warns that:

"...conscious deliberate Saxionism is folly, that the choice or rejection of particular words should depend not on their descent but on considerations of expressiveness, intelligibility, brevity, euphony, or ease of handling, & yet that any writer who becomes aware that the Saxon or native English element in what he writes is small will do well to take that fact as a danger-signal."

This lexicon of Modern English words contains many of those Saxon words that Fowler would have us prefer. May it - along with Fowler's sage advise - lead to a betterment of your understanding of Modern English and its usage!


The Fowler Collection