English engine for sense and meaning

July 12, 1996

SAMUEL JOHNSON, A DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE ON CD-ROM, Anne McDermott (editor), Cambridge University Press, (+44 1223 312393), Pounds 195 +VAT Macintosh/Windows CD, ISBN 0 521 55765 8

The general precept of consulting genius is of little use," wrote Samuel Johnson, "unless we are told, how the genius may be known". In the past decade two landmark studies - Robert DeMaria's Johnson's Dictionary and the Language of Learning (1986) and Alan Reddick's The Making of Johnson's Dictionary, 1746-1773 (1990) -have revealed that Johnson's enormous lexicon, written over nine years "amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow", is much more than the word book we thought it was.

As DeMaria has demonstrated, Johnson's Dictionary, the first to illustrate the meanings of words by quotations from great English authors, was written to be read as an encyclopaedia of literature and learning, a compendium of knowledge, the commonplace book of a man whose chief concerns included authority, education, religion, literature, and the problem of human happiness. Browsing the Dictionary's more than 100,000 quotations from Shakespeare and Bacon, Locke and Watts, Boyle and the Bible led Samuel Coleridge to remark, "I should suspect the man of a morose disposition who should speak of it without respect and gratitude as a most instructive and entertaining book".

Johnson the lexicographer dedicated his labours not only to the business of definitions and etymologies, but also to selecting "such sentences, as, besides their immediate use, may give pleasure or instruction by conveying some elegance of language, or some precept of prudence, or piety", so that "every quotation should be useful to some other end than the illustration of a word". The lexicons of Johnson's predecessors Cawdry, Cockeram, Phillips, and Bailey have been largely forgotten, but Johnson's Dictionary has retained its importance long after its lexicographic achievements were eclipsed by Charles Richardson and Noah Webster. No other work until the Oxford English Dictionary has had as much influence on English language and literature in Britain.

A Dictionary of the English Language on CD-Rom allows readers to explore Johnson's great work as never before. Searching the electronic book for themes of kingship or rhetoric or death, we can now recover the encyclopaedic tendency and the ideological timbre of Johnson's illustrations with a facility and speed that transcends the alphabetical arrangement of the material. The spinning disc breaks the linearity of the Dictionary to reveal the circles of learning and the convoluted patterns of politics and piety that constitute its extra-lexical designs.

This CD provides the text of both the first edition (1755) and the substantially revised fourth edition (1773) of the Dictionary , enabling the reader to collate these two most important versions of the work on a single screen. Reddick's researches have shown that Johnson, in response to attacks on episcopacy and the Thirty-nine Articles, infused the fourth edition with citations from Church of England apologists Leslie, Kettlewell, Nelson, Law, et al. Now for the first time it is both possible and practical for ordinary readers to trace how Johnson constructed his theological and political programme by deploying such illustrations throughout the amended text.

An electronic text is only as good as the bibliographical reliability of the source text used for transcription (not a problem in this case), the accuracy of transcription (here checked by electronic matching), and the quality of its encoding. Although the complex nature of the Dictionary makes this a particularly intricate task, editor Anne McDermott has encoded the text in SMGL/TEI with resourcefulness and precision.

The powerful DynaText program, from Electronic Book Technologies, is easy to install on both the PC and Macintosh; the manual is helpful and clear, not least because of its more than 50 screenshots to show users what they should be seeing on their monitors while performing particular operations. Still, a telephone number offering technical support for CUP electronic books would have been welcome, even if the program should present no formidable difficulties to experienced Windows and Mac users.

Every definition and every page break is marked with a hypertext link to an image of the double-column text printed in folio by William Strahan, the King's Printer and owner of the largest printing house in Johnson's London. The resolution of these images is good - press figures and pronunciation marks are readable - and signatures have been added for every page. On the three machines I used to test the product, access time was reasonable, even for the images. A double-speed or faster CD-Rom drive is recommended.

Anne McDermott and CUP have obviously taken Johnson's own words to heart: "It is not enough that a dictionary delights the critic, unless at the same time it instructs the learner; as it is to little purpose, that an engine amuses the philosopher by the subtlety of its mechanism, if it requires so much knowledge in its application, as to be of no advantage to the common workman."

Searching for Dictionary quotations from the 18th-century poet William Collins, I found just one example in the first and fourth editions - an illustration of the word "sod": "Here fame shall dress a sweeter sod /Than fancy's feet have ever trod." I then used the note-taking feature of the program to create my own annotation as a kind of electronic sticky-note in the Dictionary, identifying the poem as 'Ode, Written in the Beginning of the Year 1746', and observing that Johnson altered the poem, which originally read: "She there shall dress . . ." It was then I noticed that the supposedly identical fourth-edition entry read: "Here same shall dress". This is precisely why providing scanned images of the original text is so important-activating a hypertext link, I saw that the printed version was indeed "Here fame . . ." Evidently, both transcribers mistook "f" for long "s"; since they made an identical error and created a correctly spelled word, the problem was invisible to text matching and spell check programs. "Dictionaries are like watches", Johnson advised the aspiring lexicographer Francesco Sastres, "the worst is better than none and the best cannot be expected to go quite true." Nevertheless, this electronic book is the best resource available for studying one of the most important and influential works produced in the 18th century.

"I have sent some parts of my dictionary such as were at hand for your inspection," wrote Johnson to fellow biographer and lexicographer Thomas Birch. "The favour which I beg is that if you do not like them you will say nothing." Although this electronic book is highly praiseworthy, there is room for improvement in future editions. The first 52 folio pages of the Dictionary are missing from the CD - these contain Johnson's Preface, "The History of the English Language", and "A Grammar of the English Tongue", important documents for the study of the author's theory of language. It would also make good sense to add Johnson's "Short Scheme for compiling a new Dictionary of the English Language" (1746) and The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language (1747).

When searching for an author or a keyword, DynaText puts the highlighted word at the top line of the window so that readers need to scroll the text down onto the screen every time they wish to read more than a single line of the entry or citation. Although this is not a great inconvenience if looking for Johnson's use of quotations from Fielding (1 "hit") or Gray (2), it is a time-consuming nuisance if studying Johnson's citations of the Anglican divine Robert South (2,676), or etymologies including the word "Saxon" (4,131).

Cambridge University Press is to be commended for pricing this CD-Rom within the means of individual scholars. One wishes that the British Library's Eighteenth-Century Short-Title Catalogue and Chadwyck-Healey's expanding list of useful electronic titles were similarly available. If the newly-released Eighteenth-Century Fiction CD were priced at Pounds 320, instead of more than Pounds 3,200 (including VAT), I would more-or-less happily forego my summer vacation to buy a copy - and I know other scholars who would be willing to invest in the new tools of their trade as well.

Certainly, publishing is a business and most businesses exist primarily to make money, but many new academic CDs have been priced even beyond the means of most institutions. In an era of diminishing library budgets, scholars editing texts for electronic publication will want to consider how their choice of publisher affects the dissemination of their work. I cannot imagine that Anne McDermott, who has edited this electronic version of the Dictionary to such a high standard, would have wished to see it available only in a few research libraries.

"Its merit must be determined by the frequent resort that is had to it. This is the most unerring test of its value". Adam Smith's assessment of Johnson's two great folios in 1755 is no less apposite for scholarly texts on CD-Rom today. At this important juncture in the early history of academic "books" on compact disc, electronic authors and publishers need to consider how genuinely their decisions promote the progress of learning.

Michael F. Suarez is a junior research fellow at St John's College, Oxford.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments