The Lexicographer as Hero: Samuel Johnson and Henri Estienne

By Considine, John | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Lexicographer as Hero: Samuel Johnson and Henri Estienne


Considine, John, Philological Quarterly


James Boswell wrote in the Life of Johnson of the Great Lexicographer's occasional

playful allusion to the notions commonly entertained of his own laborious task. Thus: `Grub-street, the name of a street in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called Grub-street.' -- `Lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.' (1)

Boswell was unsure as to the right place in his narrative for these definitions. He introduced them as a footnote to a defence of Johnson's more aggressive lexicographical sallies, in which he had written that they were products of a capricious and humourous indulgence" which was also evident "in playful allusion to the notions entertained of his own laborious task [and] sometimes in effusions of respect and kindness." This defence was cancelled once, and then re-inserted. Then, at the stage of proof-correction, Boswell deleted the reference to "effusions of respect and kindness," and brought the definitions of lexicographer and Grub-street up into his main text. (2) His intention was evidently to show that although Johnson could be unjust to political opponents, the recipients of state pensions, and the oatmeal-loving inhabitants of Scotland, he could also be unjust to, or at least disparage, himself. His hesitation before placing the definitions in his text suggests a sense that they show Johnson doing himself too great an injustice.

But Johnson was surely at his most confident as he wrote those definitions. "Drudgery" was a word which he used to express arrogant irony, comparing "the charming Amusement of forming Hypotheses" with "the toilsome Drudgery of making Observations" in his life of Boerhaave, writing in the Plan of a Dictionary that "the work in which I engaged is generally considered as drudgery for the blind," and commenting in the Adventurer on "the low drudgery of collating copies, comparing authorities, digesting dictionaries." (3) The readers of the first edition of the Dictionary could see, feel, and smell the contrast between the small histories and temporary poems made by the drudges of Grub Street and the large, handsome, expensive folio volume in their hands. The dictionary-maker was a hero among the grubs, as Johnson's entry acknowledged, saluting Grub Street as home, but saluting it in the words of Odysseus, and in untranslated Greek: [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]." ("Hail Ithaca! After all my labours and the bitter woes of the sea, right glad am I to reach thy soil.") (4)

Johnson's easy autobiographical references in his jokes about dictionary-making, his confidence in the value of his personal achievement, and his ready adoption of the words of Odysseus when reflecting on his position in the world of letters were all made possible by the rhetorical example of the philologist Henri Estienne (Henricus Stephanus), and particularly by the preliminary matter of Estienne's dictionary of Greek, the Thesaurus Graecae Linguae of 1572.

Johnson's relationship with Estienne has not been discussed before. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Estienne has been, for reasons which I shall discuss shortly, one of the most unjustly neglected figures in early modern intellectual history. The second is that there has traditionally been a certain reluctance on the part of Anglophone scholars to see dictionaries of the English language in their European context. Sir James Murray's Romanes lecture The Evolution of English Lexicography (1900) is the classic statement of the insular origins of his own work, the Oxford English Dictionary, and its predecessors. When Hans Aarsleff remarked that this lecture had failed to give a satisfactory picture of the European origins of much English lexicographical practice, another scholar responded ingenuously that he had never heard Murray called a liar before. (5) Murray was not lying (and Aarsleff had not suggested that he was), but he was giving a simplified account of his subject. …

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