In this ghastly world we seek solace in order, beauty, elegance, truth and justice. There is little to be found in the works of man, but one small, enduring refuge has been available since 1926. The first edition of H W Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage can be seen in retrospect as a defiantly post-Great War work. Fowler set out to restore order and pride in the British spirit, then as now in darkness lost. Galsworthy too fretted that the time was ‘tight in money and loose in morals’, as he wrote The Forsyte Saga, which chronicles the rise of incertitude. Fowler composed a book of conduct whose certainties are as absolute as Scripture. Fowler will always tell you to do the best thing – and he will also tell you to do the decent thing when it would be unkind to do the most correct thing, such as not speaking better than your neighbours. As the Bible fell into desuetude, it was replaced, in the hearts of those newly secular yet habitually reverent, by Fowler. Not that it is necessary to choose between these companionable complements.
Fowler has survived time and his revisers – all three editions (1926, 1965, 1996) are still in print. Best is Oxford’s new printing of the first edition, with an excellent introductory essay and notes on the entries by David Crystal. The most annoying, though still indispensable, edition, is