Here a word, there a thousand
WRITING a book is an exhausting, painful struggle. The satisfaction of its completion scarcely can match the torment of its execution. Yet a book is a mere frolic compared to writing a dictionary. Fortunately for us, Samuel Johnson did not dwell on the enormity of such an undertaking. Instead, he just went ahead and did it, although his time frame was woefully askew. He had planned on three years; it took nine. On June 18, 1746, Johnson, then age 36 and the author of several well-regarded works, entered into a contract with seven London booksellers to write a dictionary. A book can be written in a room; dictionary-writing requires a house. Johnson rented No. 17 Gough Square near Fleet Street. He chose the garret, with its high ceiling and numerous windows, as his workroom. He and Mrs. Johnson occupied the lower floors. Next he hired six copyists.Skip to next paragraph
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Obtaining a workroom and hiring copyists is the easiest part of a dictionary writer's job. How does one proceed from there? Do you include words like dog, cat, ``and a thousand others, of which it will be hard to give an explanation, not more obscure than the word itself''? Johnson decides to include them, for it is impossible to draw a line between animals we know and those less well-known, such as the crocodile and the ichneumon.
How best to exemplify a word's various shades of meaning? Johnson decides to select illustrations from works of literature, history, philosophy, and science. Among English lexicographers he is a pioneer, for up to this point English dictionaries were more in the nature of word-lists, primarily concerned with giving the origins of words. Johnson was merely following the accepted practice among continental lexicographers, but with this important difference: In other countries entire academies of scholars undertook what Johnson attempted alone.
Which selections to include? Johnson: those that ``may give pleasure of instruction by conveying some elegance of language, or some precept of prudence or piety.'' Thus Hobbes is omitted (``I scorned, Sir, to quote him at all, because I did not like his principles.'') along with Congreve and other comic Restoration writers considered licentious. Even selections for words as commonplace as ``pump'' and ``sixteen'' convey moral lessons.
The folly of him, who pumps very laboriously in a ship, yet neglects to stop the leak.
Decay of Piety
If men lived but twenty years, we should be satisfied if they died about sixteen or eighteen.
How far back in English literature to search for selections? Johnson regards pre-Restoration works as ``the wells of English undefiled.'' He cites Shakespeare more than any other writer and fixed Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) as the boundary beyond which we will make few excursions.
Should one cite living authors? Johnson avoids this except ``when some performance of uncommon excellence excited my veneration, when my memory supplied me, from late books, with an example that was wanting, or when my heart, in the tenderness of friendship, solicited admission for a favourite name.'' When David Garrick, the actor, complains that the dictionary cites present-day writers beneath the dignity of such a work, Johnson responds: ``Nay, I have done worse than that; I have cited thee, David.''
How to treat anomalies of the Engish language, such as deriving length from long, darling from dear, from high, height? Or words like convey and inveigh, deceit and receipt, fancy and phantom? Johnson: Anomalies ``though inconvenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things.''