Defining the World

The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary

by Henry Hitchings

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $24

JONATHAN SWIFT, the tetchy author of Gulliver's Travels, rarely minced his words when a battle was in the offing, and he deemed few causes more worthy of spilling blood than the integrity of the English language. As with all language purists, his was a puritanical impulse. The sharp, glorious tongue of Shakespeare and Milton had been cheapened and dulled by a conspiracy of the evil and ignorant, he lamented, and by 1712 he was alleging its willful corruption at the hands of "illiterate Court Fops, half-witted Poets, and University Boys."

He was not alone. Alexander Pope contemplated compiling his own dictionary with the literary physician's hope of arresting the rapid, feverish changes in vocabulary he spied all about him, a project never assayed. Both Dryden and Defoe had advocated the creation of an English Academy on the model of the Académie Française, charged with regulating the cornucopia of new words flowing forth from all quarters. The tide needed stemming; the proposed academy was to be a set of bouncers at the door, allowing the legal words to pass while sending the rogues packing. Alarm runs through pronouncements of the time. The English language was encrusted and needed a scouring; indeed, for the wits of the period, it cried out for purification.

So much for the quiet 18th-century garden of settled verities.

Although by Swift's standards we modern heirs of the English language have certainly managed to keep the corruption jogging along--no small thanks, perhaps, to our own university boys and girls--we can but wonder with what mixed feelings the great dean would have credited that loving and massively learned monument to English that came along a decade after his death, known to us now as "Johnson's Dictionary," but which was dubbed for generations afterward simply "the Dictionary." Thomas Jefferson came to treasure his copy, mining it for quotations. Becky Sharp flung her copy out a window in Vanity Fair. Robert Browning read it cover to cover to "qualify" himself for a literary career. Only the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer enjoyed wider circulation over a century after the dictionary's appearance in 1755, and its success was owed to one fact above all others: The dictionary was not merely a dry record of words; it was itself a work of literature.

How that monolith of the 18th century came to be composed by Dr. Samuel Johnson, hero of Boswell's Life and the oracular sage of the Augustan era in English history--the "representative Englishman, the cynosure of British letters, a cultivated John Bull, the archetype of the sociable scholar"--is the subject of Defining the World, a deft, economical blend of biography, history, sociology, and lexicography, telling a tale of unremitting fascination for anyone with a taste for human achievement and a belief in human greatness.

We may suspect that Swift would have smiled on any effort expended toward "ascertaining and fixing our Language forever," as he put it--though he might have recoiled from Johnson's later sad inkling that any such noble intention can be dashed on the shoals of linguistic reality. Words aren't quite so serenely still as we might prefer, even if they can be reined for awhile. Nonetheless, this was an era characterized by a "rage for order," and order would be served.

Johnson was an unlikely candidate to compose a dictionary. Although a precociously intelligent child, he had only spotty schooling, and he spent only one year at Oxford--a time beset, according to Boswell, by "dejection, gloom, and despair"--before the exchequer ran out and his father's mortal illness forced him to return to his native Lichfield. But he possessed a cauldron of talent, and eventually the bookish youth made himself a journalist, emerging out of the coffeehouse purlieus of the periodical essayists, a world wrought by Addison and Steele in the first half of the century, becoming inured to what Hitchings calls "the vicissitudes and duties of a life of writing," where he gained the journalist's "education in working to order."

Johnson also lit out as a poet and composed "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes," poems that spread his name widely. When a London printer, Robert Dodsley, persuaded him to amass a new and badly needed dictionary, Johnson--essayist and poet but no lexicographer--took up the burden. That was in 1746. Nine years passed before he plowed through to completion of the two ponderous, oversized folio volumes, either one of which could serve to anchor a 20-foot boat.

All of which begs the question as to who should write dictionaries: dry-as-dust scholars trained in the arcane intricacies of etymology, orthography, and vowel shifts, or those equipped with the skill and finesse of the littérateur? Proper places exist for both. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary aspires to the detachment of the former. But Johnson worked with the view that, as languages are used by living souls with sensibilities and personalities, dictionaries should strain towards a corresponding engagement with words as they are used, not simply with how they ought to be used.

The catch is that whoever would presume to write a dictionary of this sort must possess a literary sensibility of the highest, most percipient kind; words must flow in his bloodstream as well as live in his mind. In this one paramount sense, Johnson's fit with this project was perfect.

"Languages are the pedigree of nations," Dr. Johnson once said. Today, some might wish to believe that the words of any language carry the cultural DNA, the unalterable codes, of those who use them; but words move more erratically than that. They flit through the times. Yet some words are more stable than others. And while it is the chief task of a dictionary to signify their meanings, most can do little more than to provide snapshots, to capture their meanings on the fly amid the flux of usage.

It is far safer to say that dictionaries take the temperature of a language; they measure and record both its stability and the feverishness of its changes. Johnson sought to make a fever chart of the words used in his day, and the chart he drew points to a frenetic, febrile age in the life of the language when, as we might little suspect, precious little order reigned. Still, Johnson revealed his heart's desire when he admitted that "one great end of this undertaking is to fix [fix: to make fast, firm, or stable] the English language."

His work was to be just as much an act of stewardship and reverence as of scholarship.

The few English dictionaries extant before Johnson's were woefully, sometimes comically, inadequate. Nathan Bailey's An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721) was the most extensive volume of its time, but its use was limited; a cat was described as "a creature well known." Most compendia had been dedicated to explaining "inkhorn" terms, hard words, whether technical, foreign, or innately obscure--like idoneous or obstonation. Little heed got paid to English as it was spoken and written by the majority.

"The need for a new English dictionary," writes Hitchings, "was therefore a matter of both national prestige and philological necessity."

But how to go about it? Johnson wished his dictionary to be a book read and pondered, not merely a reference to be consulted. He would eschew the banal uniformities of committee documents and put forth the only kind of work he knew how to produce: His own, one that was individual, indeed idiosyncratic, bearing the imprint of his trenchant personality on every page, making it both distinctive and distinguished. And his criteria for inclusion would be broad. Johnson would select, he wrote, "the words and phrases used in the general intercourse of life, or found in the works of those whom we commonly style polite writers." In other words, his was to be a comprehensive dictionary, the first of its kind.

With the help of nine amanuenses (amanuensis: a person who writes what another dictates)--practically all of them Scots--Johnson opened shop at 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street in London, and set about the laborious chore of collecting and arranging 42,773 entries for the first edition. His method of defining was pragmatic, which was, Hitchings writes, "to move from the most tangible and literal sense of the word to the most abstract, metaphoric or specialized," giving the reader "a genealogy of meaning." Whereas Bailey once defined flowers (with no entry for the singular) as "the offspring of plants," Johnson descries six discrete senses of the word, ranging from "an ornament, an embellishment" and "the prime, the flourishing part" to "that which is most distinguished for any thing valuable."

"The art of definition," Hitchings reminds us, "is the art of balance, of abbreviating without impoverishing." But a browse through the great book can also impress upon us the transitory nature of words. Where delve is for us a verb only, Johnson defined it only as a noun: "a ditch; a pitfall; a den; a cave." We use the word differently, but clearly do we see that the old sense leads commonsensically to the new, and the antiphony thus set off between the two enriches the word for us today. Thumbing through the dictionary in this way can create many a pleasurable afternoon for the irrepressible logomaniac--though logophile might be a better word for the species.

This art of definition Johnson legendarily refined. Along with the long slogs he made through words both known and utterly forgotten today, Johnson pulled off a few famous definitions, demonstrating as they did no dearth of personality and wit, including his sly bit of anti-Caledonian invective: oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. Some, while delightful, are hopelessly unhelpful. network: any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections. (Johnson had a fondness for the word "interstice," but so did Walker Percy.)

Most enjoyable are those definitions that contain cutting comment. Both our political and intellectual lives would take a bracing splash of cold water were we to reintroduce the word opiniator as "one fond of his own notion; inflexible." But then Johnson could throw some contenders out of the game. Although the related word opiniatry had been making the rounds in London, he cast his vote: "This word, though it has been tried in different forms, is not yet received, nor is it wanted." He, too, could play the bouncer at the door.

But Johnson's felicitous innovation--and the great stuffer of the tomes--was his lavish use of illustrative quotations to demonstrate various settings for words. When our teachers instructed us to use newly learned words in sentences, they were following the Johnsonian precedent. The editors of the OED would later follow suit. This practice makes any dictionary, however corrective and hortatory in intent, a historical record as well; it shows words living in their natural habitats, where real people use them most incisively and expressively.

No one with an ounce of curiosity can peruse those two volumes and not be tempted to spend as much time with the quotations as with the witty and succinct definitions of the author. The range wasn't wide, but it was high. Some hail from predictable sources. Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Swift, and Locke are liberally represented, though the Authorized Version of the Bible gets quoted an impressive 4,617 times. (Anomalies pop up if you search hard enough. Johnson quoted himself 33 times as "Anonymous" and one quotation he attributed to himself came, in fact, from Pope, a human touch.)

"The Dictionary," writes Hitchings, "creates a canon of treasurable English authors, and anthologizes their writings in a giant commonplace book."

Henry Hitchings has brought off an extraordinary performance. He writes with both a wryness and exuberance commensurate with his subject. His prose is brisk and vigorous, and while his well-sourced work is the glad beneficiary of scholarly efforts, this book is not a work of scholarship. It's a work of extravagant, and by turns acerbic, cultural commentary, and that of the best kind--the kind devoured gratefully by the curious and the non specialized. It's for civilized people.

As the years passed, and the sheets of finished copy bulged from his shelves, the great lexicographer came to recognize that not only can words change their meanings; those meanings cannot be regulated by fiat. Words are hostages to chance. The Dictionary, while almost hieratically authoritative to English readers for over a century, would never quite constitute the academy of correctness clambered for in earlier decades.

Samuel Johnson came to see that the English language does not march; it canters, runs, swims, leaps, dances. It resists fetters. But that's no matter. "Dictionaries are like watches," Johnson said shortly before he died. "The worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite right."

Tracy Lee Simmons, director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, is the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.

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