16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
A feast of a book,
This review is from: Dr.Johnson's Dictionary: 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.