A Dictionary of the English Language: an Anthology by Samuel Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LEXICOGRAPHER: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

A dictionary is a marvelous thing. I discovered this during my first year in college, when I was finally asked to do some challenging reading (and when I finally decided to start doing the assigned readings). It was with some shame that I admitted to myself, after a few weeks, that I often came across a word I did not understand. Indeed, this happened with such frequency that I finally resolved to underline all of the words I could not confidently define, and then look them up. But even this didn’t seem like enough. By the time I encountered the troublesome word again, its definition would be forgotten. Thus the “Word Project” was born.

To forcibly expand my pitiful lexicon, I resolved that I would write out the definition of every unfamiliar word in the back of a marble notebook. Then, to reinforce the definition, I would flip to the front of the notebook and use the word in a sentence. Astoundingly, I actually followed through with this resolution, and carried on the habit for years—filling up two whole marble notebooks in the process, comprising thousands of words, definitions, and sentences. I even filled up the margins with lists of synonyms. (I cannot help feeling that I have gotten much lazier with time. Could I be so disciplined now?)

A few examples from the first page include: inculcate, surfeit, equivocal, corroborate, and depredation. By the time I got to the second notebook, the words were more exotic: jactitation (the restless turning of the body in illness), imago (the unconscious idealized mental image of someone), and ontogenesis (which I’ll let you look up). But I find the lists of synonyms, or near-synonyms, more interesting now. For example: petulant, peevish, tetchy, crotchety, fractious. Or: effrontery, impudence, impertinence, insolence. I could go on—synonyms are wonderful fun, at least for writers—but I shall resist.

The project was a success. My vocabulary improved markedly, to the point when I so rarely came across an unfamiliar word that I stopped bothering to write them down. (It does still happen from time to time, though.) However, my loftier goals were unrealized. You see, I had hoped that, by expanding my vocabulary, I might even make myself noticeably more intelligent. A mind with more words to express itself must, I theorized, think more efficiently. Unfortunately, that theory did not seem to hold water (half the time I don’t think in words, anyway), and my mental acuity remained unchanged. I also thought that such a project might improve my writing. And though I do think I am, at least, more sensitive to language as a result of the project, I normally prefer to use simpler words, anyway.

Even so, in retrospect the “Word Project” was one of the greatest things I ever did for my own education. The definitions of these abstruse words were, for me, a kind of key to the wider world of knowledge and literature. I would never have developed my love of books had I constantly been scratching my head at unfamiliar words. So I have a keen appreciation for any “harmless drudge” who chooses to write a dictionary. Lexicographers do the world a great service.

This volume is, of course, not a book one can use as a standard dictionary. David Crystal has edited the 2,300 pages of dense text into something more manageable, by selecting for those passages that the modern writer might find most curious. Included are words that are now obsolete, words whose meanings have significantly changed, and words with especially pleasurable definitions.

As an example of the latter, fun is defined as “sport, high merriment, frolicksome delight.” And to flatter is “to sooth with praises; to praise with blandishments; to gratify by servile obsequiousness.” As you can see, Johnson has a tendency to pleonasm in his definitions. He is also fond of expressing his opinion of a given word, in a way that no modern dictionary would. “Fun,” for example, is “a low cant word,” and many terms are dismissed as “barbarous.”

Some words have changed in surprising ways. Johnson defines punk as “a whore; a common prostitute; a strumpet,” and punctuation as “the act or method of pointing.” Yet the most delightful entries are perhaps those words which are no longer used. Often one feels that it is a shame it should be so. What is wrong with smellfeast (“one who haunts tables”), fopdoodle (“an insignificant wretch”), and mouth-friend (“one who professes friendship without intending it”)?

If nothing else, it is worth reading this anthology to fully admire Samuel Johnson’s genius and industry. Virtually nobody nowadays would undertake to write a dictionary single-handedly. And such a task would be so massive—running the gamut from scientific jargon to recent slang—that it is difficult to image anyone succeeding. That Johnson did succeed is, more than any other of his accomplishments, the reason he was so widely venerated during his lifetime. (His contemporaries more often referred to him as “Dictionary Johnson” rather than “Dr.”)

And even if his dictionary is hopelessly outdated now, it still can serve as a model of strong writing. Johnson’s definitions are a pleasure to read through—punchy, pugnacious, and punctilious—and each one is accompanied by at least one (often many more) quotation from well-respected authors. This way, the reader’s mind is expanded while her taste is refined. An elegant idea, at least. Yet if I wish to accomplish anything in this review, it is not to praise Johnson’s Dictionary—worthy though it is of praise—but to exhort you to pause, every so often, and ask yourself whether you really know what a word means. A trip to a dictionary can open up new realms of reality.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Johnson’s Dictionary

  1. Your “Word Project” inspired me to try a modified version of my own!

    Lexicography is a fascinating subject for people that are obsessed with classification and definition like me. This first semester I took a university class of history of linguistics and I discovered the more fascinating subject of history of lexicography, how the dictionaries have evolved and how they differ between languages (the Chinese case is a beautiful mess!).

    Have you read this article https://jsomers.net/blog/dictionary ? It’s maybe a bit too nostalgic of old times but the author writes poetically about English dictionaries and in particular about The Webster.

    P.D: mi lengua madre es el español, espero que mi inglés no sea demasiado extraño!


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