The Magazine

Johnson's Canon

On the trail of the Great Lexicographer.

May 29, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 35 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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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.