Dr. Johnson's book needs another look

I suspect Samuel Johnson would not be let off so lightly today. In his momentous dictionary of 1755, some of his definitions were not quite as tactful as they might have been. Take his second definition of the word "wife," for example. "It is used for a woman of low employment." Or the way he defined "oats" as "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

Dr. Johnson was the doyen of London's literary world. He believed cities were the breeding grounds of new words, and that the country was where old words hung on. He had a sardonic air toward slow provincials (though he himself started life in provincial Staffordshire).

Johnson's dictionary, though long outmoded as an arbiter of English, remains fascinating. In a sense, it is an intriguing reflection on the way in which language persistently relegates excellent words to the scrap heap. It also contains some words that we still use today - though with very different meanings. Among my favorite now-discarded words are:

CHURME: A confused sound; a noise.

DIDDER: To quake with cold. A provincial word.

EIGH: An expression of sudden delight.

ENODATION: The act of untying a knot.

INSPISSATE: To thicken; to make thick.

EXTENDLESSNESS: Unlimited extension

LIPWISDOM: Wisdom in talk without practice.

Among words Johnson defines that seem very familiar today but have very different meanings are:

HIGH FLIER: One who carries his opinions to extravagance.

EXPLETIVE: Something used only to take up room.

JOGGER: One who moves heavily and dully.

DISHWASHER: The name of a bird.

Then there are a surprising number of words in Johnson's dictionary that are still used today and whose meaning has hardly changed at all - such as ragamuffin, stingy, touchy, virtual, nonsense, and hopefully.

Yes - hopefully. There's a word we grossly, shamelessly, extendlessly overuse today! What Dr. J. gives as this word's second definition is "With hope; without despair." Then he adds: "This sense is rare." Eigh! The past is a happy land.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.