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 personalby Richard Jenkyns / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
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…