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.

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.''

To include obsolete words? Johnson: ``Obsolete words are admitted, when they are found in authors not obsolete, or when they have any force or beauty that may deserve revival.''

What to do about words with unclear meanings? He includes them. ``These might have been omitted very often with little inconvenience, but I would not so far indulge my vanity as to decline this confession.''

Collecting words proved difficult. Johnson: ``The deficiency of dictionaries was immediately apparent; and when they were exhausted, what was yet wanting must be sought by fortuitous and unguided excursions into books. . . .'' Surrounded by books, this true bookseller's son reveled in his ``feast of literature,'' selecting words and quotations from the finest writers. ``The books he used for this purpose,'' writes his friend Sir John Hawkins, ``were what he had in his own collection, a copious but a miserably ragged one, and all such as he could borrow; which later, if ever they came back to those that lent them, were so defaced as to be scarce worth owning. . . .''

As month after month passed, this celebrant at the feast of literature became jaded. He compares his labors to those of the anvil and the mine; ``a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer.'' The dictionary went so slowly that the booksellers threatened to cut off payments. The material he had already amassed was enough to frighten everyone away by its bulk. ``Thus to the weariness of copying,'' Johnson wrote, ``I was condemned to add the vexation of expunging.''

Finally, Johnson could write, ``I now begin to see land, after having wandered . . . in this vast sea of words.'' He expresses ``parental fondness'' for his dictionary and becomes the nervous author, writing to a friend: ``I have sent some parts of my dictionary such as were at hand for your Inspection. The favour which I beg is that if you do not like them you will say nothing.''

The dictionary was published on April 15, 1755. Issued in two volumes, it contains the definitions of 40,000 words with 114,000 quotations illustrating them. Thus, to exemplify the meaning of the six underlined words from this sentence in his 1755 letter to Lord Chesterfield concerning the dictionary -- ``The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it'' -- Johnson provides selections from Locke, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Swift, the Old and New Testaments, Addison, Milton, More, King Charles, Bacon, and others. One can understand why the poet Robert Browning read the dictionary from beginning to end to prepare himself for his vocation.

Johnson could take special pride in the completion of this mammoth undertaking. Yet, as he well understood, a lexicographer's work can never be completed. The words of a living language are in constant flux. ``When they are not gaining strength, they are generally losing it. Though art may sometimes prolong their duration, it will rarely give them perpetuity; and then changes will be almost always informing us that language is the work of man, a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be expected.''

Subsequent dictionaries, each one of them deeply influenced by his dictionary, reflect the continuing changes in the English language.

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