Long the last word - even if not adroit

Anniversary Essays on Johnson's Dictionary - Samuel Johnson's Unpublished Revisions to the Dictionary of the English Language - Dr Johnson's Dictionary - Johnson on the English Language
April 21, 2006

Revolutionary and conservative, poet and prescriptivist, Samuel Johnson and his work had an enduring impact on our language, says David Nokes.

Johnson's was not the first English dictionary, an honour that belongs probably to Sir Thomas Eliot in the 16th century. Nor was it the biggest - Nathan Bailey's dictionary, published 20 years earlier, included 50 per cent more words. It was neither entirely accurate, defining pastern as "the knee of a horse", nor objective, glossing pension as "pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country", a definition that caused Johnson some embarrassment later when he, too, received an annual pension.

It was, however, the dictionary that remained, for more than a century, a byword for English culture, whether in its full folio edition, its 120 abridgments or its 309 miniature versions, one of which, as Catherine Dille notes in Anniversary Essays , was tossed by Becky Sharp from her coach as she quitted Miss Pinkerton's academy in Thackeray's Vanity Fair .

Anniversary Essays includes a number of articles by distinguished scholars of Johnson's dictionary, notably one in which Robert DeMaria confesses that "in recent years" he has become increasingly aware of Johnson's "desultory ways" of composition. Examining the "carelessness" and "haste" with which Johnson cobbled together the "History" and "Grammar", he notes with near despair "at least nine words" occurring that "do not appear in the Dictionary proper". But feelings of frustration finally mellow into a grudging recognition of the significance of "the casual, the accidental, the circumstantial and the spontaneous in literature".

Geoff Barnbrook denounces Johnson as a culpable linguistic prescriptivist, arguing, with a scientific devotion to statistics and graphs, that he had a strong, if largely unconscious, desire "to have the English language firmly policed"; something "which can only be seen as negative".

But Anne McDermott is at hand to stress the more customary view of Johnson, whose attitudes to language were "altered by the experience of attempting to codify it". Yes, he frequently employs such words as "barbarous" or "cant" for terms he dislikes; but the true criterion for the inclusion of such terms in his dictionary is simple usage. The Tory Johnson was revolutionary in extending the linguistic franchise to anyone who used the language, irrespective of sex or age. Despite several disagreements in this volume, the editors argue that even where contributors diverge, they participate in a general commitment to celebrate that achievement.

Allen Reddick's essay on the limits of collaboration within the dictionary indicates that Johnson's view of his readership was unusually monolithic.

It is well known that five of his six acknowledged amanuenses were Scots and that on several occasions they offered their own regional variants on words to be included. In the definitions of to blow, someone has included a handwritten note on the "proverbial expression for poor Comfort, akin to that in Scotland He blaws a cald coal ". This passage, and many like it, was struck through by Johnson, acting, Reddick notes, "as a tight bottleneck".

He made it evident, to his amanuenses and to us, that final responsibility for everything in the dictionary belonged to him, and his views on the correctness of an English dictionary meant the exclusion of all significant regional variations.

Reddick develops his views further in a magnificent facsimile edition of Unpublished Revisions to the Dictionary , which, for the magnificent price of £100, offers photographic reproductions of 122 pages that Johnson prepared but did not use for the fourth edition, together with a transcription and commentary. This offers an analysis of the working methods of Johnson and his amanuenses as presented in their detailed handwritten notes. For baldrick ("a girdle"), an amanuensis presented Johnson with a splendidly sensual passage in which a baldric lies "Athwart her snowy breast, & did divide/ Her dainty paps" - Johnson crossed that out. For barbarlie he goes further, omitting an indelicate reference taken from some lines of Thomas Tussler ("I dare assure,/ cast dust in his arse"), blacking them out on an accompanying paper slip and leaving the entry out of the dictionary completely. Reddick comments that it is "the only case... of such assiduous blacking-out" that exists. It cannot have been the simple presence of the word arse that led to this obliteration, for that word, glossed as "a vulgar phrase", along with bum, fart, turd and piss , is included in the dictionary. Henry Hitchings, in his excellent little book Dr Johnson's Dictionary , notes that even the cognate Latinate term retromingency ("the quality of staling [or pissing] backwards") is included; it is "something that hares do, apparently", he comments.

Hitchings's book is full of serendipitous felicities: love of his native city, Lichfield, led Johnson to scatter references to it throughout, as a place of martyred Christians, a minster, or a place where "a tuft of trees" was called "Gentle shaw ". He employs "cant", a term he glosses as used "by beggars and vagabonds", to lump together familiar meanings of nervous ("medical cant"), plum ("cant of the city", meaning £100,000), stout ("a cant name for strong beer"), to cabbage ("a cant word among tailors") and Bishop ("a cant word for a mixture of wine, oranges and sugar"). Some definitions exhibit his moral distaste, such as stockjobber ("a low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares") and gambler ("a knave whose practice it is to invite the unwary to game"); intriguingly, luggage ("any thing of more bulk than value") also carries a whiff of disapprobation.

"Johnson dismisses the human tendency to encumber oneself with material things that are impressive yet ultimately worthless," Hitchings observes.

Some definitions are opaque or odd - a tarantula is an "insect whose bite is only cured by music"; lunch is, apparently "as much food as one's hand can hold" - but the guiding commentary is uniformly sane and well disposed.

"Dictionaries are like watches," Hitchings quotes Johnson as saying, shortly before his death. "The worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."

Johnson on the English Language , edited by Gwin Kolb and DeMaria, is volume XVIII of the Yale Edition of The Works of Samuel Johnson, which began half a century ago with many brave hopes. Almost 50 years later, with an unknown number of volumes to come, many of these hopes have frozen to near despair.

The glacial movements of the Yale Edition now face, in addition to many publication differences since the 1950s, real competition from Oxford's recent series Lives of the Poets.

It is not only the time taken by this latest volume but the emphasis put on Europe in a work devoted to the English language that raises questions. Its first sentence mentions "the Continental (especially French)" tradition of lexicography; yet Johnson explicitly cites " Gallick structure" as something from which he strives to rescue the language. He censures 24 Gallicisms, from adroitness to transpire , and stands up for "the spirit of English liberty "' against those influences "whose idleness and ignorance" threaten to "reduce us to babble a dialect of France ". Asked by Dr Adams how long he would take to complete his dictionary, given that the French Academy of 40 members had spent 40 years on theirs, Johnson gave the firm pronouncement:

"Three years... As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman."

Not that Johnson's dictionary, as a whole, follows any conscious programme. In the "History", we find those odd words, such as inconnection , which, to DeMaria's near despair, never appear in the dictionary. In the "Grammar", Johnson says that oe , "being not an English dipthong", is best excluded and that words including it "are better written as they are sounded, with only e , economy ". Yet he lists six words beginning with oe (although not economy) and in his preface he (or just possibly his compositor) spells it in the old, forbidden way, oeconomy . In general, the letter c is "unnecessary" Johnson remarks and might be omitted "without loss" since "one of its sounds might be supplied by s , and the other by k "; yet he leaves it, convinced of his "chief rule", which is, he says in the "Plan", "to make no innovation, without a reason sufficient to balance the inconvenience of change".

Paul Korshin wrote his article for Anniversary Essays shortly before he died. In it, he quotes Boswell's reference to Johnson lying "in bed with the book" and dictating his first prose work, the translation of Voyage to Abyssinia , to his old schoolfriend Edmund Hector. It is a familiar anecdote, and one that many scholars have read, but only Korshin pays it the requisite attention. At 416 pages, he notes, Johnson's translation is "rather a long book... Are we to imagine bedside sessions lasting several weeks?" It is a first-rate piece of detailed analysis - subtle, ironic and precise - and indicates how much the Johnsonian world will miss Korshin's acute intelligence.

David Nokes is professor of English, King's College London. He is writing a biography of Samuel Johnson.

Anniversary Essays on Johnson's Dictionary

Editor - Jack Lynch and Anne McDermott
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 245
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 521 84844 X

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