Peculiar words

Dr Johnson wrote a dictionary to teach people to use English well, but also to record how they spoke it. It remains both authoritative and personal
May 20, 2005
Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings
(John Murray, £14.99)

Every schoolboy knows, or used to know, that Dr Johnson wrote the first dictionary of the English language. Every schoolboy was wrong. There were some 20 English dictionaries before Johnson, and though Johnson's was larger in scope than its predecessors, it was very far from being a complete survey of the language: the first edition included 42,773 words at a time when English comprised between 250,000 and 300,000. His dictionary was nevertheless an extraordinary achievement, and Henry Hitchings's engaging book helps to show why.

A dictionary has several purposes. There is what one might call the philosophical or logical function: the business of defining meaning. There is the etymological function: explaining the origin of words. There is the historical task of understanding how meanings have evolved, enlarged and shifted. There is the prescriptive task of defining good usage and the descriptive task of recording how words are actually used. And there is the business of sifting the corpus of English literature in order to illustrate usage by actual example; this was Johnson's most original contribution to the art of lexicography.

The science of etymology was in its infancy when Johnson was at work; even the discovery of the Indo-European language family was more than 50 years in the future. Here Johnson seems to have done as well for his time as could be expected. The force and lucidity of his mind fitted him well for the exacting work of definition. When James Murray began the great project that we know as the Oxford English Dictionary, he took over many of Johnson's definitions unaltered—an impressive tribute. Hitchings notes that Johnson devoted more than 5,500 words to the verb "put," and 8,000 to "take," where he distinguished 134 different senses.

Johnson was also strong on the "genetics" of words. One example cited by Hitchings is the entry for "flower," where Johnson distinguishes six senses, beginning with botany and moving on to transferred and metaphorical uses. As he had said when setting out his Plan of an English Dictionary, a word might have a "natural and primitive signification," a "consequential meaning," a "metaphorical sense," a "poetical sense," "familiar" and "burlesque" senses, and—most subtly and mysteriously—"the peculiar sense, in which a word is found in any great author." But he also knew when to be simple: a runner is "one who runs." Hitchings for some reason thinks this is absurd; but why? Compare the OED ("One who runs; a racer") or the Shorter Oxford ("A person who runs, esp. in a race"). Provided "run" has already been defined, Johnson's definition, simple as it is, can hardly be bettered.

Some recent dictionaries have given up prescribing good usage, contenting themselves with setting down the language as it is. Thus modern dictionaries record the valley girl use of "like" as "a filler of little or no meaning," as the Shorter Oxford puts it, "literally" attached to non-literal statements, and even some common mistakings of one word for another. This procedure is often misunderstood by readers, who are liable to think that if it is in the dictionary, it is alright. Johnson himself struck a judicious balance. When he began work, his aim, as he said, was "to preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom," but he came increasingly to realise the ceaseless flux and mutability of language. When he came to write the preface to his dictionary, he acknowledged that "while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it… words are hourly shifting their relations." His examples of usage— chosen, as the title page declared, from the "best writers"—were meant, in part, to show us how to use English well, but he also recorded English as it was. So he distinguishes the different registers of language—on one side, words that were "merely poetical," like "darkling"; on the other, words that were colloquial or coarse.

The most extraordinary fact about Johnson's dictionary is that it was essentially the work of one man. True, he had amanuenses, sometimes as many as four at a time; these assistants copied out on to slips of paper the passages that he had marked in books as possible illustrative quotations; in the event, he cited more than 100,000, having collected twice as many. And he drew on technical authors for the jargons of medicine, science and law. But with that exception, the research, the thinking and the choosing were entirely his own. The Académie Française, working collectively, had taken more than 50 years to produce its dictionary; Johnson did the job in eight. Famously, he defined a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the origin, and detailing the signification of words." Since Johnson, lexicography has attracted not only drudges but people of literary significance in their own right: Grimm in Germany, Littré in France. But as the OED acknowledges, Johnson is the only literary figure of the first rank to have written a dictionary in English.

And that leads to the last and perhaps strangest distinction of Johnson's work: that it is an authoritative work of reference which is at the same time personal. A handful of his definitions are notoriously mischievous or tendentious. Hitchings gives us most of the familiar cases: "oats," "patron" and "Whig," for example. But these are exceptional; if they were not, the dictionary would have been too idiosyncratic to be useful. It is the ordinary texture of the work which provide the flavour: the illustrations suggest a distinctive moral and aesthetic taste, while the definitions show firmness of judgement and the power of clear, vigorous discrimination. Hitchings's light, affectionate book is written to mark the 250th anniversary of the dictionary's publication. It begins with an account of Johnson's early life. This is a story which has often been told, and though Hitchings tells it well enough, the job has been done better—for example, by John Wain in his excellent biography, and of course by Boswell. But when he gets on to the dictionary itself, Hitchings comes into his own, with a clear, lively account of how the dictionary was made, what it did, and why it mattered. In the US, he reveals, it matters still: as it was the standard authority on English usage when the US constitution was drawn up, it is still consulted by the federal courts when the founding fathers' meaning is in dispute.