The historian Jacques Barzun joined the American Heritage® Dictionary Usage Panel in 1964, the year it was formed. Author of numerous books on Western intellectual and cultural history, most recently From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, Barzun was born in France and came to the United States with his family at the age of twelve. He became a master of the English language and was a faithful filler-outer of our annual usage surveys. When Barzun joined the panel, he was already in his late fifties. He continued to complete the surveys for the next several decades, through his nineties and, astonishingly, all the way into his 100s. We were sad to hear of his death on October 25, 2012, at the age of 104. We had recently sent out the 2012 usage surveys, and we had also sent Barzun a special questionnaire as part of a project to give selected panelists the opportunity to tell us more about their ideas and practices concerning language. We assumed that Barzun had been unable to complete either the survey or the questionnaire.
Indeed, the survey was not returned. But about a month after Barzun’s death, we received a letter from his daughter. Enclosed was her father’s copy of the questionnaire, which she had found among his papers. What an unanticipated pleasure it was to discover that he had answered all the questions but two and had appended a note giving us permission to use his answers “in any way you find useful.”
Barzun was a brilliant writer and a brilliant writer about writing. He believed in precision and care in choosing words. We are lucky that he let us in on some of his final thoughts about language. Below are our questions and his answers—simple and direct.
Q: Do you use an online dictionary or a print dictionary?
Q: Who (if anyone) has had the most influence in developing your sense of what constitutes acceptable English usage?
A: Fowler. [The reference is to Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926. —ed.]
Q: Is there any grammatical construction or word usage that you find particularly annoying?
A: Make sense to mean true, correct, acceptable—anything has to make sense if it is to be proved false or wrong.
Q: What do you consider to be your role as a usage panelist for the American Heritage dictionaries?
A: To hold back the urge (general, not mine) to make all constructions valid.
Q: How do you think your English usage has been influenced by your having learned French as your first language?
A: The compulsory precision of French—not necessarily rational—makes its parallel demand on one’s English.
In response to our questions about whether there are usages he had ever changed his mind about or usages he considered wrong but used anyway, Barzun answered straightforwardly: “None.”
We appreciate Jacques Barzun’s many years of service as a usage panelist. We’ll miss him.
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