Complete Story

HERRING, William Rodney

WINTER 2010, 40:1, pages 23-45

Representational Crisis: Contradiction and Determination in Verbal Criticism 

Abstract: During the late nineteenth century, language authorities in the United States were distressed by what they saw as a pervasive misuse of words. A particular type of language authority, the verbal critic, attempted to mitigate misuse by establishing and insisting upon “correct” meanings of words, and the writing of these verbal critics were remarkably popular at the time. Verbal critics' goals are not always clear-cut: they often lament the ignorance of those who “abuse” words, and at other times, they express their purpose as offering instruction in how to speak properly. Indeed, verbal criticism is full of contradictions, which this article explains in terms of a widespread crisis in representation, a crisis that seemed to threaten speakers' ability to communicate, affected late-nineteenth-century social structure, and mirrored political and economic debates over monetary policy, as well.