27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
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Those who remember Samuel Johnson remember him through Boswell's vigorous and detailed biography, not through Johnson's literary works themselves. There are few experts steeped in eighteenth century literature who are closely familiar with Johnson's essays, poems, dramas, biographies of poets, and evaluations of the plays of Shakespeare. Most of us know, though, that a woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs; one doesn't wonder that the task is done well, but rather that it is done at all. That's Johnson, speaking in Boswell's book, and countless other memorable episodes are there that are part of common culture. Johnson's greatest work is also seldom read today but is the foundation of a great deal of literary thought and philosophy. His _Dictionary of the English Language_ was published exactly 250 years ago. Henry Hitchings, in his book _Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary_ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), has mined the dictionary in many ways to show that it is a treasure house: "More than any other English dictionary, it abounds with stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths." It also shows Johnson's interests, beliefs, prejudices, preachiness, and occasional ignorance in ways that Boswell could not. This is a delightful book, a lightly-written, loving tribute to Johnson and his great work, full of insights about the man and his times.
Hitchings has included many biographical facts to lead up to Johnson as lexicographer, but his dictionary is always central. The dictionary is astonishingly the work of this one man, toiling in his London garret (now a museum) and always criticizing himself for his sloth. Johnson's choice of words and his definitions of them often show the turns of his mind. He would not let objectivity interfere with his moral mission, as in "Suicide: the horrid crime of destroying oneself." He is decorous about naughty words, leaving many out, and including others that required reading between the lines. "Bagnio" he defined as "a house for bathing, sweating, and otherwise cleansing the body," but everyone knew it was a brothel disguised as a bathhouse, and Johnson was having some arch fun with his definition. Similarly droll, but again with insistent morality, was "bawd: one that introduces men and women to each other, for the promotion of debauchery." Johnson originally thought his dictionary would make firm the language against changes, but he eventually realized that such a goal was illusory. He was a bad prognosticator of which new words would last and which would not; he thought "ignoramus" and "shabby" were poor constructions that would prove to be ephemeral, and recommended the increased use of "ultimity: the last stage" and "to warray: to make war." In any huge undertaking such as this, there must be errors, and though errors here are few, they are entertaining. A tarantula, Johnson tells us, is "an insect whose bite is cured only by music," reflecting folklore of the time that had been recently confirmed by a Neapolitan violinist. Johnson had no ear or taste for music, so a sonata is merely "a tune." (After hearing a violinist's performance, someone mentioned how difficult the playing was, and Johnson said, "Difficult? Sir, I wish it were impossible.") A pastern is "the knee of a horse," when it ought to be (and Johnson revised it to be) "that part of the leg of a horse between the joint next the foot and the hoof." When he was asked, at a large dinner, how he managed to get this one so wrong, he was unevasive: "Ignorance, Madam, ignorance." He even admitted ignorance in his definition of "trolmydames", a word found in _The Winter's Tale_. Where the definition ought to be is rather a short confession: "Of this word I know not the meaning." This is a little better than the _Oxford English Dictionary_, which has yet to acknowledge even the existence of the word.
The _OED_, with its armies of readers, editors, and compilers, has far surpassed Johnson's great work, but includes much of it. Its first editor, James Murray, worked with Johnson's dictionary on his table beside him, and paid his preceding lexicographer tribute by including many of the definitions unchanged: "It would be mere affectation or folly to alter what cannot be improved." Hitchings's affectionate tribute accomplishes a worthy task of allowing us to admire anew Johnson's life and great work.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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This book gets off to rather a slow start. The first 45 pages - about a sixth of the book - tell us of Johnson's life before he started work on the Dictionary. True, it links some of the events of Johnson's life to definitions he will give in his Dictionary; but such links are relatively few: the biographical element and the not unfamiliar social history of 18th century London predominate. That is pleasant enough, but one is impatient for the story of the Dictionary to begin. But when it does start, the book becomes really interesting and indeed fascinating.
Initially Johnson hoped to `stabilise' the English language, to exclude `low terms' from it, and, through many of the elevating passages he chose to illustrate the use of a word, to promote education, religion or morality. Later, however, he felt the responsibility to record how English was actually being used in his time - that being the view which predominates among modern lexicographers. If he has to include words of which he really disapproves, he notes that they are `cant'. But he happily included some robust slang expressions of his time and certain vigorous words of abuse. He was suitably idiosyncratic in deciding which words are cant (bamboozle, nervous, the drink stout, flirtation), which are `low' (ignoramus, simpleton) and which are not. He also had a great dislike for words recently imported from France, though he includes them: bourgeois, unique, champagne, cutlet, trait, ruse, finesse. He would of course have known what a huge range of French words came into the English language with the Norman Conquest; but for him any word, of whatever origin, that had been used by the Elizabethans had a respectable pedigree.
Johnson's methodology is interesting. He began with underlining a word in passages from his vast reading; that word would then be written on a slip of paper, together with the passage or passages in which it had figured; and the slips were then arranged in alphabetical order. Hitchings writes that `fundamentally Johnson was less interested in language than in its use by writers'. Johnson noted the etymological origin of words, but was more interested in how they had then developed therefrom through usage. He quoted lavishly from the Bible (4,617 times) and from some 500 authors, ranging from the famous to some who are today almost completely unknown - but refused to quote from writers such as Hobbes or Bolingbroke whom he thought too wicked. His quotations give one an insight into his own tastes and that of his contemporaries. As a result the Dictionary becomes what Hitchings calls `a giant commonplace book'.
In chapters on Johnson's melancholia and introspection we are give quotations which are reflections on such experiences. Others were chosen to illustrate the frustrations of marriage - Johnson's own marriage having been a very difficult one.
In the course of the book Hitchings quotes nearly 500 of the Dictionary's 42,733 definitions. Some of these are exceedingly polysyllabic and Latinate, rightly characterized by Hitchings as a `sesquipedalian avalanche'; in others, like his references to Scots, to Whigs or to Catholicism and Presbyterianism, he avowedly and robustly airs his prejudices, as he does in his laudatory quotation following the word `royalist'. He regards suicide as `a horrid crime'; he shows his contempt for foxhunters; his prejudice against alcohol is given expression in his definition of distillers. And there are many words now, alas, lost and not to be found in my Collins Dictionary (though they are in the great Oxford English Dictionary). Hitchings provides a feast of them throughout the book; here are just a few: abbey-lubber, giglet, extispicious, pickthank and pricklouse, jobbernowl and dandyprat, fopdoodle and witworm. Johnson also listed the delightful-sounding trolmydames because he had found it in Shakespeare, but confessed that `of this word I know not the meaning'. (The OED does not list it; but Webster's 1913 Dictionary does know it: the source seems to be a trou-madame, meaning a pigeonhole, and trolmydame is the name of `the game of nineholes'.)
Hitchings draws out very well how the Dictionary entries relate to the customs and fashions of his time, to its science and its entertainments.
The last forty pages of the book mainly tell the later history of the Dictionary and of its later editions. Although the Dictionary did have some violent critics, it quickly became a classic. In 1773 a fourth edition appeared, with significant changes made by Johnson himself. The Dictionary's definitions even figured in 20th century legal cases about the American Constitution, with lawyers claiming that the 1787 wording of the Constitution would have carried the meanings ascribed to them by the then standard authority of the Dictionary.
Although the 42,733 definitions in the first edition were but a small part of the 250,000 to 300,000 words in the English language at that time, Johnson's achievement was immense. He was after all the sole compiler of the Dictionary, compared with the 40 members of the French Academy who had toiled for 55 years to produce theirs. Johnson had hoped to complete the work in three years. In the end it took him nine, from 1746 to the first edition in 1755. And he had laboured without much help from the Earl of Chesterfield, to whom Johnson had submitted the original plan in hope of the Earl's patronage. By the time the Dictionary was about to be published, Johnson had made a name for himself with other writings, and the Earl now belatedly posed as Johnson's patron. Hitchings tells well the story of that famous put-down of the Earl by Johnson which was also a watershed in the history of patronage.
One feels like cheering. I have always had a liking for Johnson's quirky and forthright character. The Dictionary shares these qualities, and what I have learnt from this admirable, charming and scholarly book has further reinforced my affection for him.