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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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.