Magazine article Humanities

What Samuel Johnson Really Did

Magazine article Humanities

What Samuel Johnson Really Did

Article excerpt

He made dictionaries matter

SAMUEL JOHNSON, POET, satirist, critic, lexicographer, and dyedin-the-wool conservative was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, on September 18, 1709. We are quickly approaching the tercentenary of Johnson's birth; scholars worldwide have been celebrating throughout the year. If someone's birthday is worth celebrating three hundred years after the fact, inevitably partygoers will spread their praise pretty thick, as praise for Johnson has been spread since James Boswell' s Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791. As a result, legend has sometimes obscured the truth. Among other aspects of his career, Johnson's contributions to English lexicography are often misunderstood. It serves both Johnson's legacy and the history of lexicography to revalue his influence on the modern dictionary.

Though he disparaged Johnson's style, as well as his literary and political judgment, Thomas Babington Macaulay, in the Edinburgh Review in 1831, admitted that, due to Boswell, Johnson would be "more intimately known to posterity than other men are known to their contemporaries." We tend to presume on that acquaintance. Johnson scholar Jack Lynch anticipated the tercentenary spirit by asserting (in the title of his recent selection) that Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language is the "work that defined the English language." The English language was doing pretty well before Johnson got involved; nevertheless, he has been taken for the Jupiter of lexicography since before his dictionary appeared in print in 1755. For all the mythology, you'd think English vocabulary had sprung fully formed and irreproachable from his prominent, Augustan forehead.

Johnson may well be the most celebrated lexicographer of English, yet many claims about his lexicography are exaggerated. Conventional wisdom holds that Johnson single-handedly conceived and produced A Dictionary of the English Language. Though he gave up several years of full-time work to the Dictionary, Johnson wasn't the first professional lexicographer: John Kersey, author of A New English Dictionary, published in 1702, probably owns that distinction. And Johnson did not write his dictionary alone: He had half a dozen assistants, and the history of lexicography tells us that assistants influence dictionary-making more than either eighteenth-century social hierarchies or the Great Author theory behind Johnson's reputation admits.

Nor was Johnson's the first dictionary to employ literary quotations to illustrate meaning or usage. Putting aside major early modern dictionaries produced in France, Italy, and Portugal, John Florio' s Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes was, in 1598, the first at least partially English dictionary to use quotations, and by no means the last preceding Johnson. Johnson is also often credited with introducing sense divisions into dictionary entries, but Benjamin Martin had used them in Lingua Britannica Reformata, published in 1749. Martin may have got the idea from Johnson's Plan of a Dictionary in 1747, for Johnson proposed to "sort the several senses of each word, and to exhibit first its natural and primitive signification," followed by "its consequential meaning," and then "the remoter or metaphorical signification." Whoever came up with it, no one doubts, in retrospect, that it was a good plan.

Johnson is admired for his witty definitions. No horticultural definition of oats for Johnson, but rather the infamous "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." Alas, for the mythographers, Johnson was not even the first English lexicographer to write a memorable definition. Everyone knows that Johnson defined lexicographer as 'harmless drudge'; or, at least, they know that someone did. Well over a century earlier, in 1611, however, Rändle Cotgrave, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues gave us "Brunette, brunet, brownish, somewhat browne . …

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