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.