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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
This is a very well written and highly readable account of the first really important English dictionary. It contains a wealth of information about Dr Johnson, about the eighteenth century, about London life and the English language. It's a sympathetic and sometimes very funny study. Who's it for? Anyone interested in the historical period, in language and ideas of...
Published on 12 April 2005 by coffeebird

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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A thesis masquerading as a novel
I've read a couple of books about dictionaries (including the highly forgettable "Surgeon of Crowthorne") but I'd never found an accessible book about Johnson's dictionary.

This book is well researched (in fact, it seems to be either a diluted version of Hitching's doctoral thesis or an extention of it) and is reasonably entertaining. It concentrates on the...
Published on 9 May 2006 by viciousidol


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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 12 April 2005
This is a very well written and highly readable account of the first really important English dictionary. It contains a wealth of information about Dr Johnson, about the eighteenth century, about London life and the English language. It's a sympathetic and sometimes very funny study. Who's it for? Anyone interested in the historical period, in language and ideas of correctness, in how the language got to where it is today, in books about books or in cultural history. It's a very interestingly organised book as well, with sections headed by entries from Johnson's dictionary, running through the alphabet from A to Z. Recommended.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A feast of a book, 11 July 2006
By 
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Book That Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World (Paperback)
This book gets off to rather a slow start. The first 45 pages - about a sixth of the book - tell us of Johnson's life before he started work on the Dictionary. True, it links some of the events of Johnson's life to definitions he will give in his Dictionary; but such links are relatively few: the biographical element and the not unfamiliar social history of 18th century London predominate. That is pleasant enough, but one is impatient for the story of the Dictionary to begin. But when it does start, the book becomes really interesting and indeed fascinating.

Initially Johnson hoped to `stabilise' the English language, to exclude `low terms' from it, and, through many of the elevating passages he chose to illustrate the use of a word, to promote education, religion or morality. Later, however, he felt the responsibility to record how English was actually being used in his time - that being the view which predominates among modern lexicographers. If he has to include words of which he really disapproves, he notes that they are `cant'. But he happily included some robust slang expressions of his time and certain vigorous words of abuse. He was suitably idiosyncratic in deciding which words are cant (bamboozle, nervous, the drink stout, flirtation), which are `low' (ignoramus, simpleton) and which are not. He also had a great dislike for words recently imported from France, though he includes them: bourgeois, unique, champagne, cutlet, trait, ruse, finesse. He would of course have known what a huge range of French words came into the English language with the Norman Conquest; but for him any word, of whatever origin, that had been used by the Elizabethans, had a respectable pedigree.

Johnson's methodology is interesting. He began with underlining a word in passages from his vast reading; that word would then be written on a slip of paper, together with the passage or passages in which it had figured; and the slips were then arranged in alphabetical order. Hitchings writes that `fundamentally Johnson was less interested in language than in its use by writers'. Johnson noted the etymological origin of words, but was more interested in how they had then developed therefrom through usage. He quoted lavishly from the Bible (4,617 times) and from some 500 authors, ranging from the famous to some who are today almost completely unknown - but refused to quote from writers such as Hobbes or Bolingbroke whom he thought too wicked. His quotations give one an insight into his own tastes and that of his contemporaries. As a result the Dictionary becomes what Hitchings calls `a giant commonplace book'.

In chapters on Johnson's melancholia and introspection we are give quotations which are reflections on such experiences. Others were chosen to illustrate the frustrations of marriage - Johnson's own marriage having been a very difficult one.

In the course of the book Hitchings quotes nearly 500 of the Dictionary's 42,733 definitions. Some of these are exceedingly polysyllabic and Latinate, rightly characterized by Hitchings as a `sesquipedalian avalanche'; in others, like his references to Scots, to Whigs or to Catholicism and Presbyterianism, he avowedly and robustly airs his prejudices, as he does in his laudatory quotation following the word `royalist'. He regards suicide as `a horrid crime'; he shows his contempt for foxhunters; his prejudice against alcohol is given expression in his definition of distillers. And there are many words now, alas, lost and not to be found in my Collins Dictionary (though they are in the great Oxford English Dictionary). Hitchings provides a feast of them throughout the book; here are just a few: abbey-lubber, giglet, extispicious, pickthank and pricklouse, jobbernowl and dandyprat, fopdoodle and witworm. Johnson also listed the delightful-sounding trolmydames because he had found it in Shakespeare, but confessed that `of this word I know not the meaning'. (The OED does not list it; but Webster's 1913 Dictionary does know it: the source seems to be a trou-madame, meaning a pigeonhole, and trolmydame is the name of `the game of nineholes'.)

Hitchings draws out very well how the Dictionary entries relate to the customs and fashions of his time, to its science and its entertainments.

The last forty pages of the book mainly tell the later history of the Dictionary and of its later editions. Although the Dictionary did have some violent critics, it quickly became a classic. In 1773 a fourth edition appeared, with significant changes made by Johnson himself. The Dictionary's definitions even figured in 20th century legal cases about the American Constitution, with lawyers claiming that the 1787 wording of the Constitution would have carried the meanings ascribed to them by the then standard authority of the Dictionary.

Although the 42,733 definitions in the first edition were but a small part of the 250,000 to 300,000 words in the English language at that time, Johnson's achievement was immense. He was after all the sole compiler of the Dictionary, compared with the 40 members of the French Academy who had toiled for 55 years to produce theirs. Johnson had hoped to complete the work in three years. In the end it took him nine, from 1746 to the first edition in 1755. And he had laboured without much help from the Earl of Chesterfield, to whom Johnson had submitted the original plan in hope of the Earl's patronage. By the time the Dictionary was about to be published, Johnson had made a name for himself with other writings, and the Earl now belatedly posed as Johnson's patron. Hitchings tells well the story of that famous put-down of the Earl by Johnson which was also a watershed in the history of patronage.

One feels like cheering. I have always had a liking for Johnson's quirky and forthright character. The Dictionary shares these qualities, and what I have learnt from this admirable, charming and scholarly book has further reinforced my affection for him.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly entertaining, 12 April 2005
By A Customer
It's 250 years since Dr Samuel Johnson compiled the first really authoritative dictionary of the English language, and, as Henry Hitchings shows in this lively but also scholarly book, this is something to celebrate. Johnson is known to many people as the character portrayed by Robbie Coltrane in a famous episode of Blackadder, but he was one of the great men of his time, and his dictionary was his most important achievement. It affords a window on the society and cultural life of its period, is a seminal work in terms of the history of English and of lexicography, but is also funny and unexpectedly poetic, as Hitchings illustrates. The book explains why Britain needed a good dictionary, why Johnson was the man to do it, how he went about his work and what its influence has been. At the same time it gives a very clear picture of what the dictionary is like, and it emerges as a remarkable work and an extraordinary accomplishment for a single man to have pulled off. Hitchings writes engagingly: there are abundant anecdotes, and at the same time there is enough fresh, surprising and well researched material to make this a very enjoyable study.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable book about a great achievement, 6 April 2006
By A Customer
This review is from: Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Book That Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World (Paperback)
Dr Johnson is a quotable figure, but he's not so well known for what he actually wrote, and in this readable book Hitchings tries to redress the balance. It's an interestingly organised study of Johnson's dictionary, Johnson the man and the eighteenth century, but it will perhaps be best received by people who are intrigued by language and have enjoyed books like David Crystal's Stories of English or the more recent Balderdash and Piffle. There are some good anecdotes here, as well as lots of fluent analysis. It's probably less arcane than it sounds, and Hitchings writes with style and a human touch. Recommended.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just what the doctor ordered!, 4 April 2006
This review is from: Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Book That Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World (Paperback)
Dr Johnson... star of one of the best episodes of 'Blackadder'... the one who got upset when his precious dictionary ended up in the fire.
Of course, the real Johnson had far more substance. By turns melancholic, sociable, pious, amorous, humorous and - most famously - witty, Johnson is often turned to today more for the story of his life and his oh-so-quotable quotes, and the whole Johnson industry, perpetuated by James Boswell.
This is a stunning book - intelligently structured around the dictionary , it draws its understanding of Johnson's character, opinions, failings and triumphs from the dictionary itself, looking closely at Johnson's definitions of words, and exploring sometimes what they reveal about eighteenth century society. All of this sounds perhaps a tad tedious - but Hitchings writes skilfully, and with a witty sense of humour where required.
Each chapter begins with, and takes its title from, a word from Johnson's dictionary and Johnson's definition, then relates the word to Johnson's work on the dictionary or biographical information - a neat formula which works, and is just a cut above the ordinary... especially as these words are then in alphabetical order - a nicely polished structure.
Johnson was a huge consumer of tea - so, in Johnsonian style, put on the kettle, retreat to your garret, then sit back with a brew and savour a fascinating read. Then head to the nearest tavern for some serious intellectual discussion on one of the eighteenth century's greats.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Joy of language!, 13 Dec 2011
This review is from: Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Book That Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World (Paperback)
Many years ago I was given an original, antique copy of the second part of Johnson's dictionary. I came across it recently while tidying our books and tucked into it was a review for Hitchings biography of Johnson and I bought a copy. I am really enjoying this book, for anyone interested in words and their ever changing meaning it is bliss. Added to the joy of words is the fascination of Johnson's life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Light and Informative, 15 July 2009
By 
Mr. S. D. Halliday "Assistant Professor of Ec... (Northampton, MA, USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Book That Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World (Paperback)
Though interesting, I did not finish this book quickly. Every so often I read a chapter or two, in between other books, or when I felt like a change from the book I was reading. I did not read it dedicatedly. I have read a fair amount of popular biography and history, but I found that Hitchings did not make enough of a tale of Johnson's life, did not weave a narrative of a life lived oddly, opinionatedly, and moralistically. But, his focus was the dictionary itself and not just its author, so he's excused. The story of the dictionary was a worthy challenge and Hitchings does it justice.

The structure is good, the historical content excellent, and the tactic of titling the chapters with specific words in the dictionary apposite. Hitchings provides a substantial amount of historical content without getting stuck in History's dross. For someone interested in the evolution of the English language Dr Johnson's Dictionary provides remarkable insight into the project, contrasted well with the strange and belaboured efforts by the Italians and French, while also showing the uniquely Johnsonian flavours of this landmark vocabulary.

The books weaknesses are dramatically fewer than its strengths, and noting this The Modern Language Association in the US gave Hitchings their prize for best work by an independent scholar in 2005 for the US version of the book. I didn't find the book prizeworthy, but rather worth a morsel of my leisure time here and there, a morsel I could enjoy the immediate taste of, then leave and return for more a bit later.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What a read., 26 Jan 2006
By A Customer
This book is fantastic! Don't we all love it when a previously unheard of author, surfaces to write something extraordinary! I read it on my way across the Atlantic on a cruise, and found it thoroughly enjoyable. I havent read a book so intriguing for a long time, and found it a breath of fresh air to do so. The author, Hitchings is a superb writer; cleray interested in his chosen subject he explores it fully and in an accessible manor. A must read for anyone who likes dictionaries or informative reading.
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A thesis masquerading as a novel, 9 May 2006
This review is from: Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Book That Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World (Paperback)
I've read a couple of books about dictionaries (including the highly forgettable "Surgeon of Crowthorne") but I'd never found an accessible book about Johnson's dictionary.

This book is well researched (in fact, it seems to be either a diluted version of Hitching's doctoral thesis or an extention of it) and is reasonably entertaining. It concentrates on the dictionary more than the man and, although it starts like an autobiography of Johnson, it branches away until it becomes the story of the dictionary and its impact on the world.

There are a few niggling points. Hitchings (note, Hitchings - not Johnson!) is difficult to read because of the language he uses. His prose is littered with huge, latinate words when short, more recognisable ones would do. He goes a bit overboard with adjectives which, again, test the patience of the reader. If his intention was to have you reaching for the dictionary every few pages then it worked.

The book really doesn't know what it wants to be. It refers to Blackadder and other examples of pop culture but, at the same time, speaks like an eighty year old Professor of English. Where there are strokes of genius in this work, they come from Johnson. By staying close to the dictionary and its definitions, this book manages to rise above its pretentious author and make the reader smile. Johnson's dictionary is a source of many great lines, wry and poetic by turns (see entries for "thumb" and "oats").

This book is good but, as a general reader, I found it disappointing that the author could not come out of "English teacher mode" to make this book more accessible to the layman.
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3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow.., 28 May 2005
By A Customer
The debut for the author, who I think handles it really rather well. This book is the definitvie guide to the english language. I loved it, my wife loved it and my two daughter Constanca and Monica who are both in their teens loved it; a perfect gift for anyone who likes history. If you havent heard about Henry Hitchings yet, dont worry you soon will... History in the making.
BUY IT!
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