Sunday, May 16, 2010

Defining the World

The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary

The making of a dictionary hardly seems a fascinating topic, yet reading this book made me wonder if it's possible to write a dull volume about Samuel Johnson.

Defining the World by Henry Hitchings describes the herculean feat of creating the first comprehensive English dictionary, a task which Johnson completed almost single-handedly in nine years. (Its French counterpart occupied 40 scholars for 40 years.) One of the reasons for the dictionary's success was its inclusion of quotations to illustrate usage.

Defining the World is organized chronologically, while chapter titles are presented in alphabetical order using words from the dictionary, beginning with "Adventurous" and ending with "Zootomy." Johnson's methodology and the dictionary's subsequent influence are given, along with details on Johnson's life in 18th century England.

While a monumental achievement, the dictionary wasn't perfect, and Hitchings doesn't shy away from its mistakes and shortcomings. He notes absent words, as well as words whose meanings have altered over the years, or which have become quaint or are no longer in use, like pissburnt, jolthead, smellfeast, bedswerver, and looby. Some definitions (like the oft-quoted one for oats) have a delightful quirkiness that reveal as much about Johnson as the word itself.

But as Hitchings notes, "Johnson's finest definitions remind us that he was a poet." The dictionary is a work of art, one that can be browsed through for pleasure, not only for the enjoyment of Johnson's prose but also for its snapshot of 18th-century life. As Hitchings says, "it abounds with stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths. It is, in short, a treasure house."

The dictionary is available as a pair of downloads (Volume 1 and Volume 2), but if you're not interested in perusing an electronic edition, Hitchings's book is the next best thing.

Boswell's Life of Johnson