Defining the World
The Extraordinary Story of
Dr. Johnson's Dictionary
(Picador)He was about as strange as they get. The painter Ozias Humphrey would visit "and find him breakfasting at one o'clock in the afternoon, dressed like a derelict."
This absurd figure in "an old black wig" and faded breeches was easily mistaken for a madman.
His biographer Boswell reported that Such was the heat and irritability of his blood, that not only did he pare his nails to the quick; but scraped the joints of his fingers with a penknife, till they seemed quite red and raw.Johnson may have had what we now call Tourette's Syndrome, a condition that causes one to make constant clicking or twittering or grunting sounds, with repetitive movements. In his cruel descriptions, we come to realize that Boswell may not have cared for him too much, saw him as an intellectual oddity on which to build his own reputation. It patently isn't requisite, but Boswell tells us,
It is requisite to mention that while talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth, sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving half a whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too; all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile.
Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a whale.
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This noisy old hooter was one of the most eminent sages of 18th Century England, nay, of Europe: producing a definitive edition of Shakespeare, countless tracts and prefaces, plays, essays, a novel and, most astonishing of all, the most complete, exhaustive, carefully collected ... and often humorous ... dictionary of the English language.
It wasn't the first, but it was certainly the best. There had been others who tried before him: Robert Cawdrey, John Wilkins, William Lloyd. There was an etymological dictionary produced by Nathan Bailey in 1721. But no one had tried nor succeeded in binding up the whole of the English language until Johnson. After seven years of intense work, in 1755, the Dictionary of the English Language appeared, with over 42,000 entries. One man, without benefit of computers, typewriters, university support, government committees, arts councils' grants --- assisted only by six or seven poorly-paid helpers (whose sole job was to organize, not create) --- came up with the first true dictionary of the English Language. This one-eyed, badly-bewigged, snorting, heaving whale of an intellectual, the great Samuel Johnson, did this. On his own.
Defining the World is Hitchings' take on Johnson and his work. And Hitchings claims that the Dictionary is not just that. It is also an anthology of the important literary resources of the day; it is a window into Johnson's own tastes; it is a mirror of Johnson's politics, religion, taste, and thought; it is a critique of 1750's England; it is, above all, a picture of Johnson's dark soul, for he was a man of heavy moods (he once said he would give up one of his arms to be free of the miasmas of the soul).
Hitchings is a true Johnsonian. He is literate, funny, perceptive, has studied the master thoroughly, and, at times, his style reflects, and reflects beautifully, Johnson's. The thirty-five chapter headings are drawn from and defined by the Dictionary, in alphabetical order, from "Adventurous" to "Zootomy." This includes the famous "Lexicographer" ("a common drudge.") Too, there is "Commoner," "Philology," "Network," "Nicely," "Higgledy-piggledy" ("a cant word") and "Melancholy" ("A gloomy, pensive, discontented temper," "A kind of madness, in which the mind is always fixed on one object.")
Hitchings leans on Boswell, as all of us Johnsonophiles must, but with some suspicion. Boswell bought into Johnson's lie that he only worked on the first and fourth editions of the Dictionary, but as Hitchings suggests, given Johnson's way, he was also rewriting it in his head during that twenty year interval between those editions.
There is also the matter of Johnson's post-partum depression. After the printing of the first edition, he was reduced to dejection, "weakness and misery." Money was always a problem. He was too generous to the odd pensioner. He permitted no end of eccentrics to stay in his house. And, in the period after publication, he was so broke he had to take in too much Grub Street work. "Although," says Hitchings, "he took apiculture seriously, we are still surprised to find him reviewing a book about 'Collateral Bee-Boxes.'"
Boswell painted Johnson as somewhat of a prude, so it is a pleasant surprise to read David Garrick on the subject. He reveals that Johnson forced himself to stay away from the Drury Lane Theatre because "the white bubbies and the silk stockings of your actresses excite my genitals." (The "bubbies!" Not in the Dictionary --- although "genitals" was.)
There were a few semi-prurient words that made it through the neo-Puritan filter, although strange, or strangely defined. "Priapism" is there, as a "preternatural tension." "To hang an arse" is "a vulgar phrase, signifying to be tardy, sluggish, or dilatory." A dandelion is a "pissabed," and a "pricklouse" is a "word of contempt for a tailor."
Part of the appeal of the Dictionary for the modern reader [writes Hitchings] lies in its stock of lost words, many of them terms of abuse like "dandiprat," "jobbernowl," and "looby."
A lady once "congratulated him on the omission of 'naughty words.'"
Johnson answered her, "No, Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however, that you have been looking for them."
One of the reasons for us to have such affection not only for Johnson but for Defining the World is because is it a sublime yet droll book, filled with perspicacity, lacking chicanery or pish.
Indeed, it is my thought that we have in Hitchings a new and better Boswell. He has studied Johnson, his Dictionary, and his many writings; has come up with a picture of the man at once as humane and wondering and strange, but seen through a lens that is perhaps a bit more clear than Boswell's, certainly more loving. He may quote with pleasure the contrary reviews of Johnson's critics, but it is with amusement, not contempt. He includes, for instance, a paragraph or so on Noah Webster, whose own American Dictionary, "was dedicated, not without a touch of self-aggrandizement, to God."
It was most injudicious of Johnson [wrote Webster] to select Shakespeare as one of his principal authorities. Play-writers in describing vulgar scenes and low characters, use low language, language unfit for decent company.
Hitchings convinces us that one might consider reading the Dictionary as an extended disquisition on one of the great men of English letters. It is his choice style that gives us a new way to see him and his contemporaries: the harmless drudges (amanuenses) who helped him with his labors; the printers who defended --- and fought with --- him (some went into bankruptcy because of the project).
Then there are his peers --- Sir John Hawkins, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson ... the author of the shameless novels Pamela and Clarissa, a man who was always ready to make Johnson a loan to tide him over.
Finally, there are the five hundred authors quoted in the Dictionary, those who helped him to construct this monument to the English language, the likes of John Dryden, William Shakespeare, the many authors of the King James version of the Bible, and, finally, John Locke, who wrote (and was quoted, in Johnson's Preface), as having writ ... large, and lovely:
I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.--- L. W. Milam