Defining the World
The man who defined the world
By Steven Martinovich
Harold Bloom once argued that William Shakespeare created what we know as the modern man through his plays. Our modern world may have been created by impoverished academic who toiled for years to compile what would appear to be a more humble accomplishment, a dictionary. As much a story of the English language as it was a reference work, Dr. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language had an impact that may be beyond measure.
As Henry Hitchings shows in his marvelous Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary, embodying its author's sensibilities and biases, the dictionary not only was a snapshot of the English language at the time of its publication in 1755, it also shaped its future. Considered the standard for nearly two centuries and still in print today, Johnson's dictionary has influenced how every dictionary since has been created.
When he was tasked to compile the dictionary in 1746, Samuel Johnson was a relative unknown. Perpetually in need of money, as writers often are, Johnson took on the project expecting it to last only a few years. Very quickly he was disabused of that notion, realizing that even with assistants the dictionary would likely take several years and exact an intellectual and physical toil on him. Johnson would have to carefully compile tens of thousands of definitions -- over 42,000 in the first edition -- and over twice as many supporting quotations illustrating how the words were used.
The Dictionary of the English Language was not, however, merely a reference work. An educated and religious man of strong opinions, Johnson also used his work to satisfy items on his personal agenda. Most of the quotations selected were designed to promote traditional moral values ("Suicide: the horrid crime of destroying oneself."). Johnson, a fervent nationalist when it came to lexicological concerns, also waged war on what he viewed as the encroachment of foreign words, primarily French, into the English language. Definitions included digs at a word's origins if Johnson viewed it as having a questionable etymology.
When it was finally released the dictionary weighed in at a staggering 20 pounds and cost 4£, 10 shillings, an enormous sum for the time. Despite its large size and cost, the dictionary was greeted immediately as a monumental achievement. Within a short period of time it became "the dictionary" when one asked for such a reference. Although only a few thousand copies were initially released, its target audience -- the wealthy and educated -- was well covered.
Hitchings shows through numerous examples that Johnson's Dictionary wasn't a dry read. Rather, thanks to his unique style, the dictionary was often superb literature. "Johnson's finest definitions remind us that he was a poet. They are succinct, accurate and elegant. He is especially skilled in explaining some of those abstract or intangible things that seem least amenable to definition," argues Hitchings. More than a reference, Johnson's Dictionary "abounds with stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths." It served as an argument for words that Johnson wished would gain popular currency, and others he wished to disappear.
Johnson's goal ultimately was to preserve the English language in the state that he found it, to protect it from change. He realized, however, that language was like water: fluid and ever changing even if its essential nature remained the same. Indeed, a read of the dictionary reveals very quickly how words we commonly use today have changed in two and a half centuries. In Johnson's time a "fireman" was "a man of violent passions" while a "orgasm" referred to "sudden vehemence" -- though a wag may argue that perhaps that definition isn't entirely outdated.
Hitchings has done Johnson proud with an engaging biography that does justice to both the man and his signature contribution to the English language. Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary argues that although his work has long been surpassed by other more modern dictionaries, they all owe a debt to a man who managed to create something "in defiance of circumstance and probability." While other biographies of Johnson have been written, few others rise to Hitchings' level.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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