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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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.