[Paleopsych] NYT: Appreciations: Johnson's Dictionary

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Opinion > Appreciations: Johnson's Dictionary
April 17, 2005


    Two hundred fifty years ago, on April 15, 1755, Samuel Johnson
    published the first edition of his Dictionary of the English Language,
    compiled and written almost wholly by himself. It appeared in London
    in two folio volumes. Like most dictionaries, there is a rigorous
    serenity in the look of its pages. The language has been laid out in
    alphabetical order. The etymologies and definitions bristle with
    italics and abbreviations. The quotations that exemplify the meanings
    of the words present a bottomless fund of good sense and literary

    But I wonder whether anyone has ever had a more dynamic or volatile
    sense of the language than Johnson did. We tend to remember him as an
    older man, grown heavy, his face weighed down as much by indolence as
    industry. But in April 1755 he was not yet 46. With the publication of
    his dictionary, he returned from his researches into the English
    language the way an explorer returns from the North Pole, with a sense
    of having seen a terrain that others can see only through his account
    of what he found there. Instead of a wilderness of ice, he faced what
    he called, in his preface to the dictionary, "the boundless chaos of a
    living speech." Instead of voyages into Arctic waters, he talks of
    "fortuitous and unguided excursions into books."

    It's tempting to think of a lexicographer in terms of the dictionary
    he produces, and Johnson's is certainly one of the great philological
    accomplishments of any literary era. But it's just as interesting to
    think of what the dictionary does to the man. Johnson says, quite
    simply, "I applied myself to the perusal of our writers." But reading
    "our writers" to find the materials for a dictionary is unlike any
    other kind of reading I can imagine. It would atomize every text,
    forsake the general sense of a passage for the particular meaning of
    individual words. It would be like hiking through quicksand, around
    the world.

    Johnson lived in turmoil, and the sense of vigor he so often projected
    was, if nothing else, a way of keeping order in a world that
    threatened to disintegrate into disorder every day. And what was the
    disorder of London to the chaos of the language? "Sounds," he wrote,
    "are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain
    syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of
    pride." Johnson published his dictionary not as the conqueror of the
    language but as the person who knew best how unconquerable it really


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=VERLYN%20KLINKENBORG&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=VERLYN%20KLINKENBORG&inline=nyt-per

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