[Paleopsych] Sunday Times (UK): Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings

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Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings

    Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings
    DR JOHNSON'S DICTIONARY: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that
    Defined the World
    by Henry Hitchings
    J Murray £14.99 pp288

    SAMUEL JOHNSON'S DICTIONARY: Selections from the 1755 Work that
    Defined the English Language
    edited by Jack Lynch
    Atlantic £19.99 pp654

    Samuel Johnson is the only famous writer who is better known for what
    he said than for what he wrote. Essays, poems, biographies, drama and
    fiction flowed from his pen, and they are all forgotten. Most people
    would be hard put to it to name even their titles. On the other hand,
    we all know who said that no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for
    money, or that when a man knows he is going to be hanged it
    concentrates his mind wonderfully, or that a woman preaching is like a
    dog walking on its hind legs. Like most other Johnsonisms, these were
    published by Boswell after Johnson's death, and we can never be sure
    how far Boswell's Johnson was Boswell's invention.

    Henry Hitchings's ingenious and fascinating book shifts the focus back
    to the indisputably real Johnson by combing through the 42,773 entries
    in his Dictionary for evidence of his beliefs, prejudices, hang-ups,
    cultural context and occasional ignorance. Jack Lynch's beautifully
    produced volume of selections from the Dictionary, including its
    moving preface, perfectly complements Hitchings, and both celebrate
    the 250th anniversary of Johnson's mighty achievement. The Dictionary
    was published on April 15, 1755, and had taken eight years to compile.
    Johnson worked almost single-handedly, employing only half a dozen
    raggle-taggle copyists chosen, with typical kindness, because they
    were poor and starving. By contrast the French Dictionnaire had, as
    Johnson enjoyed noting, taken 40 scholars 55 years. His was not the
    first English dictionary, but it instantly eclipsed its rivals and
    held the fort for a century and a half. It was Johnson's dictionary
    that Robert Browning read through in order to "qualify" as a poet, and
    that Becky Sharp, in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, flung into Miss
    Pinkerton's garden (actually it must have been one of the many
    abridgments, because even Becky could not have launched Johnson's
    two-volume, 20lb monster into the air).

    To illustrate the meanings of words, Johnson supplied 114,000
    quotations from books covering every branch of learning and going back
    to the 16th century. Nothing remotely comparable had been done before,
    and it made his dictionary into a superior prototype of the internet
    -- a bulging lucky-dip of wisdom, anecdote, humour, legend and fact.
    Nobody but Johnson could have done it, because nobody had read so
    much. A bookseller's son, he had been ravenously turning pages since
    childhood. Sickly, half-blind and racked by strange tics and spasms
    that attracted ridicule, he read to escape the pain of life. He "tore
    the heart out of books", it was said, often returning them to their
    owners badly mauled. To compile the dictionary, he waded through acres
    of print, marking passages that clarified a word's meaning, then
    handing them to his little band of paupers who copied them out onto
    thousands of slips.

    Thanks to these labours, his dictionary was the first to record not
    some lexicographer's ideal of what words ought to mean, but how they
    had actually been used. He seems, when he started out, to have
    entertained hopes that his dictionary would "fix" the English language
    and banish errors. But he quickly came to realise that languages live
    by changing, and he was the first to formulate the modern concept of
    lexicography as an endlessly evolving record of usage. For someone of
    Johnson's politics this must have been a difficult adjustment. A
    diehard Tory monarchist, he disliked change and hated busybody
    reformers. The devil, he told Boswell, was the first Whig. But
    throwing out dictatorial ideas of lexicography fitted in with his
    British love of freedom. Other countries, he observed, had set up
    academies to regulate usage, but "to enchain syllables, and to lash
    the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride".

    Slavery repelled him. He took a freed slave, Francis Barber, into his
    house, and bequeathed him the bulk of his estate. His opinion of
    Americans ("I am willing to love all mankind," he confessed, "except
    an American") stemmed partly from the colonists' doublethink about
    freedom and slavery: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for
    liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"

    Like his recognition of "general agreement" as the shaping force
    behind language, his inclusion of "low" words in the dictionary was a
    democratic gesture. Hitchings thinks his copyists may have done their
    bit by introducing their employer to the cant of crooks and
    cardsharps. "Giglet: A wanton", "Fopdoodle: A fool", "Dandiprat: An
    urchin", "Jobbernowl: A blockhead", and many more, flaunt their garish
    charms in Lynch's selection. Hitchings shows, too, how Johnson's
    definitions display aspects of his personality -- the poet ("Puppet: A
    wooden tragedian"); the scientist, ("Network: Anything reticulated or
    decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the
    intersections"); the religious melancholic ("Obsession: The first
    attack of Satan, antecedent to possession"); the moralist ("Suicide:
    The horrid crime of destroying oneself"); the intellectual
    ("Stockjobber: A low wretch who gets money by buying and selling

    His limitations are also exposed. "Sonata" is defined merely as "A
    tune", reflecting his indifference to music. He once remarked, at a
    performance by a celebrated violinist, "Difficult do you call it, Sir?
    I wish it were impossible." He was not good at predicting which words
    would survive. "To dumbfound", "ignoramus", "shabby" and "simpleton"
    struck him as substandard and probably ephemeral, whereas he commended
    "ultimity" (meaning "the last stage") and "to warray" (to make war) as
    useful additions to the language. National self-respect obliged him to
    draw the line at French words, so "bourgeois" and "champagne" are
    omitted, although current at the time.

    Popular accounts of Johnson turn him into a lovable eccentric, which
    is a way of avoiding his brainpower. Hitchings will have none of this.
    He keeps drawing attention to the unremitting intelligence that
    Johnson's lexicographical labours demanded, not least in separating
    out the ramifying senses of common words. The dictionary's entry for
    the verb "take" distinguishes 133 meanings and has 363 illustrative
    quotations. Johnson's psychological observations reflect similar
    acuteness. True, he had his soft side, as his fondness for his cat
    Hodge testifies. But he would not have seen that as a weakness. Want
    of tenderness, he told Boswell, was a sure sign of stupidity. His
    insight into people, including himself, was sharp and hard, and
    schooled by poverty. He had to leave Oxford after a year because funds
    ran out, and when, later in life, he heard he had a reputation for
    being "frolicsome" there, he curtly demurred: "I was rude and violent.
    It was bitterness which they mistook for frolic."

    He knew that poverty poisons the closest relationships. "Poor people's
    children never respect them," he told Boswell, adducing, as evidence,
    his disrespect for his own mother. Both remarks are worth pondering
    today. Our tendency to criticise the poor for their unhealthy
    lifestyles and dysfunctional families would elicit sharp retorts from
    Johnson. His morality is a corrective to our destructively unequal
    society, and it matters, in the end, far more than any dictionary.
    Hitchings's book, among its other excellences, never loses sight of

    Available at Books First prices of £11.99 (Hitchings) and £15.99 plus
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