YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Architect of the language

Defining the World The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary Henry Hitchings Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 294 pp., $24

October 23, 2005|Ken Smith | Ken Smith has written several books, including "Junk English" and "Raw Deal: Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans."

THE modern dictionary is a dispassionate work of reference, designed to be flipped open to resolve momentary questions about spelling or definition and then slid back onto the shelf to resume collecting dust. Much as enthusiasts love their Merriam-Webster or their Oxford, they would probably not choose either for an hour of leisure reading.

Not so Samuel Johnson's "A Dictionary of the English Language." In "Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary," Henry Hitchings argues that Johnson intended his 1755 volume to be read -- and not solely as a reference to be consulted casually or dispassionately. The author suggests that Johnson would have enjoyed knowing that some of the definitions in his dictionary would later provoke oaths and fisticuffs.

James Boswell's "The Life of Samuel Johnson" is considered the definitive portrait of the man, but it is a poor place to learn about the "Dictionary." The Scottish lawyer and essayist, who met Johnson after the latter had completed his "Dictionary" labors, chronicled Johnson the celebrity, the essayist, the coiner of quotable quotes, the man of leisure who toured the countryside and socialized at London's Literary Club. Boswell writes little of the years Johnson spent in self-willed privation in a garret, painstakingly assembling what would be his most magnificent work.

Hitchings tells this overlooked story engagingly in a well-written, intelligently organized and thoroughly readable book. This is no small feat when one understands that his subject is not merely the English language but a 250-year-old dictionary that purports to set its very parameters. He is also writing about Johnson, a man of opinion, pride, prejudice and ambition, with quirky habits, pedagogic instincts and a bibliophile's knowledge of English writers and literature.

It is inconceivable today that one man would presume to define the vocabulary for an entire language, but that was the commission given to Johnson in 1746. The need for a comprehensive English dictionary was considered "a matter of both national prestige and philological necessity," Hitchings writes. The widespread use of print and a growing literacy demanded that spellings and definitions be fixed. Johnson's "Dictionary" also would help to define what it meant to be British, no small thing for a growing colonial empire. "Imperialism is in part a feat of rhetoric," Hitchings writes. "Britishness, in its many guises [needed] to be codified, in order to be exportable.... [A] standardized English would be a priceless administrative tool."

By age 37, Johnson had built a reputation as a writer of merit through steady years of work at Gentleman's Magazine and as a lexicographer who had cataloged a large library owned by the first and second earls of Oxford. He was offered the job of compiling a dictionary not by the government or the crown but by a group of powerful London booksellers, who calculated that they could make a profit on so useful a book. The Italians had taken 30 years to produce their dictionary, the French 55. Both had been compiled by academies of scholars. Johnson, who preferred to work alone, supposedly boasted to a friend that he would write England's in three. It would take him nine, even with numerous assistants.

Hitchings is at his best when revealing Johnson's methods, discerning his intent and making us appreciate the task of turning the nightmarish muddle of English into a model of organization. To do so required the skills of a writer, an editor and those of "the anthologist and the hod-carrier, the book-muncher, the pagemaker and the cultural steeplejack," and the result remains "an astonishing feat of endurance and of literature."

Johnson recognized early that it would be impossible to be comprehensive. He approached his dictionary through books, not the alphabet. His word list was assembled principally from the works of "writers of the first reputation." And he was the first English lexicographer to include quotations from other authors in a dictionary -- 110,000 of them -- to illustrate the words he defined. Hitchings describes Johnson "as a sort of butterfly-collector, gathering specimens of usage out in the wild and then arranging them systematically at a later date." The result is a dictionary that is more than a lexicon; it is a treasury of English writing.

Johnson also understood that words are the names of ideas, not things. Citing the deceptively simple example of the word "flower," Hitchings shows how the definition moved from its most tangible and literal sense to its most abstract, from "the part of the plant which contains the seeds" to "that which is most distinguished for any thing valuable." Johnson paid scrupulous attention to shades of meaning -- "life" has 15 senses, "world" has 16. He mapped words, an approach that continues to shape the way we think about language.

Los Angeles Times Articles