Hitchings, Henry. Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary.

NY: Farrar, Straus, 2005.

I was one of those bright, autodidactic kids whose idea of a great way to pass a rainy afternoon was to curl up with a volume of the encyclopedia, or with a large dictionary, and just browse. I delighted in learning new stuff, and of a very miscellaneous nature. (I was no doubt born to become a reference librarian.) I learned about the history of dictionaries in library school, but Hitchings (whose first book this is, and who did his PhD thesis on Johnson) goes into far greater depth and does it in a highly entertaining way.

It usually surprises people to learn that Johnson’s work was not only the first “complete” monolingual dictionary in English, it was the first in any language. The Sumerians and every major power since produced lengthy word lists — lexicons — to assist in translating technical terms from one language to another, but no one had ever attempted to define or explain a language to its own speakers. (And the first attempt by the French Academy in the previous century never got past the letter “L.”) Johnson expected the project to require perhaps three years but, of course, it took far longer than that — and when the two-volume work with its 42,000 entries was complete, it became almost immediately an icon for the English nation and for the 18th century. It also quickly became an important tool in the furtherance of British linguistic imperialism worldwide.

The author has organized the book in thirty-five chapters with headings in alphabetical order — Amulet, Darkling, Factotum, Lexicographer, Opinionist, Ubiquity, etc., each representing a word and its definition. He outlines Johnson’s uncomfortable early life and the path he followed as a young man through education and a dedication to literature, to his fascination with the English language. Then he considers the Doctor’s methods and conclusions; for him, it was what is now called a “learning experience,” and his post-dictionary literary writing is noticeably different from what came before. The dictionary also is famous for its incorporation of the compiler’s often acerbic opinions (and often with a political flavor), but Johnson was an extremely widely read and very astute thinker with a knack for concise and precise definition. It’s interesting to note words whose meanings have changed radically in the past 250 years: “Fake” means only a coil of rope, while “orgasm” denotes “sudden vehemence.” The Dictionary of the English Language is long out of copyright, though it has never gone out of print. I recommend that when you finish this fascinating book, you go online and download a copy of the original in PDF format, from The Gutenberg Project or elsewhere. You’ll be set for that next rainy afternoon.

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Published in: on 21 September 2012 at 12:16 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Hitchings, Henry. Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. (reviewsmith.wordpress.com) […]


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