A man and his Dictionary

SETH LERER

A new book traces the origins of English — from the Anglo-Saxons to Eminem. In the excerpt below, author Seth Lerer explains how Samuel Johnson’s watershed 1755 Dictionary changed English forever.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds
National Portrait Gallery, London

Was Samuel Johnson mad? We tend, these days, to pathologize the past, to understand creativity in illness. Robert Schumann’s mania, Virginia Woolf’s depression, Vincent van Gogh’s psychosis, Isaac Newton’s Asperger’s syndrome — all are invoked to frame imaginative works in ways that we can explain, or explain away.

For modern students, Johnson’s quirks evoke more than the eccentricities of intellection. His great biographer, James Boswell, records him struggling to get out of a doorway, only to at last hurl himself through (a sign, some think, of an obsessive-compulsive disorder); he tells tales of Johnson muttering and sputtering, hands flailing as he holds court in the coffee house or tavern (a sign, some think, of Tourette’s syndrome); and he recounts, as Johnson himself often did, despair at failing to accomplish anything of note or taking on great projects that could never be completed (a sign, some think, too, of depression). For the clinically minded reader, all of the characteristics appear at the beginning of the preface to the Dictionary Johnson published in 1755.

“It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pionier [sic] of literature; doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.”

There is an unmistakable sadness to these lines, a sense that the lexicographer toils lowly, that he cannot be rewarded for his true accomplishments, that all he can aspire to is lack of blame, rather than praise. But there is, at the level of the clause, an almost obsessive rhetorical parallelism. Phrases concatenate on one another here; alliterations ring (“slave of science,” “remove rubbish”); assonances chime (“success … applause,” “humble drudge,” “author … aspire”). It is as if the rhetoric reveals the man, as if these feints expose his compulsions in their verbs: toil, driven, attracted, exposed, disgraced, punished.


And, in its use of literary examples to illustrate word uses, forms, and histories, the Dictionary affirmed a canon of English literature and critical appreciation: It was both a product of and subsequent teacher of taste.


From the start, Johnson’s Dictionary feeds our need to see the person in the work, and generations of his readers (long before anyone would diagnose him medically) have found him at such moments “captivating” and “enticing.” Though there were dictionary makers before Johnson, it was he who effectively invented the persona of the lexicographer and, in the process, reinvented himself as the great figure out of literary history we know him to be.

Of course, Johnson’s Dictionary did more than present a linguistic persona. It created the public idea of the dictionary as the arbiter of language use. It made such a book the kind of object everyone would have and use. More pointedly, it shaped the English of its time and for a century afterward. It regularized spelling and grammatical forms. It codified and sanctioned pronunciations. It broadened the vocabulary of everyday speech, while at the same time seeking to excise slang and colloquial expressions from polite discourse. And, in its use of literary examples to illustrate word uses, forms, and histories, the Dictionary affirmed a canon of English literature and critical appreciation: It was both a product of and subsequent teacher of taste.

In all these areas, Johnson set the mould for later lexicographers: from Noah Webster and his Dictionary of the American Language (first published in 1828), to the founders and the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (published from 1888 to 1933), who, in fact, first called their work the New English Dictionary — for the old one was Johnson’s.

Generations of readers have found the personal and the technical in the Dictionary; but what we may find, too, is the elegiac. Johnson misses things: misses the sureness of his original project laid out in his previously published Plan of the Dictionary; he misses stability in language and life. His evocations in the preface to the Dictionary have the flavor of a paradise now lost:

“I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.”

Johnson began much like, perhaps, Milton’s own God, who made order out of chaos and brought light with but a word. “When I took the first survey of my undertaking,” he writes in the preface, “I found our speech copious without order, and energetic without rules: Wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.”


These really are, now, ardent spirits, and the path to Milton in these quotations is always, too, a path from darkness to light, a path of observation, beaming sun, and feeling. It is as if Johnson moves us from the chemical hell of Newton’s burning lake to Milton’s “up-springing light” and the vision of the “midst of heav’n.”


From Milton, too, Johnson derived an ideal of figurative language. The great Miltonic similes, with their extended yoking of disparate things into new figurative forms, gave Johnson something of an inkling not of English’s linguistic past but of its future. They show a move from technical and literal senses to metaphorical connotations.

Johnson, in fact, took it almost as a general principle of linguistic change that technical words become metaphorical ones. “The original sense of words,” Johnson wrote in the preface, “is often driven out of use by their metaphorical acceptations, yet must be inserted for the sake of a regular origination. Thus, I know not whether ardour is used for material heat, or whether flagrant in English ever signifies the same with the burning. Yet such are the primitive ideas of these words.”

Look up “ardent” in Nathan Bailey’s 1721 Dictionary and you find: “hot as it were burning, very hot; also vehement, eager, zealous.” Bailey makes the psychological meaning a special instance of a more general definition.

Johnson, by contrast, makes the scientific meaning the primary, natural one, and he relegates the psychological meanings to secondary status through his numbering arrangement. But if we look at the whole arc of definitions, running from ardent, through ardently, to ardour we can see vividly the move not just from the technical to the figurative, but from the philosophical and natural to the imaginative and literary.

Ardent begins with Newton’s Opticks, and Newton’s “ardent spirits” are not creatures out of fantasy but volatile liquids. Now, move to definition two and see how Dryden illustrates “ardent eyes” — still burning, but somewhat figuratively. Definition three is the most figurative, “passionate,” and the illustration comes from Prior’s poetry. Then, we see the sequence again in Ardour: from technical and prose, through Dryden once again, to Pope, and finally to Milton.

These really are, now, ardent spirits, and the path to Milton in these quotations is always, too, a path from darkness to light, a path of observation, beaming sun, and feeling. It is as if Johnson moves us from the chemical hell of Newton’s burning lake to Milton’s “up-springing light” and the vision of the “midst of heav’n.”

The heart of Johnson’s Dictionary, as his life, lies in his reading, and in Milton, Locke, Shakespeare, and many other writers he found illustrations not just of words but worlds. Johnson was always tracing out the original, seeking to signify himself, finding the words that matched the thought. His reading sought to match the proper quotations with meanings. If he was mad, or miserable, it may have been out of the recognition that his work, in any form, would always be unfinished.

“No dictionary of a living tongue,” he wrote at the conclusion to the preface, “can ever be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away.”

“A whole life,” he went on, “cannot be spent on syntax and etymology,” for “even a whole life would not be sufficient.” Johnson’s awakenings, in the end, are less those of a poet doomed to rise a lexicographer than of an 18th-century linguist, incapable of fixing words; or of a patronized poet who wakes to find himself a modern author. Like some man trying desperately to get out of a doorway, he realizes that all he can do is hurl himself forward into whatever halls await him.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Seth Lerer. "A man and his Dictionary." excerpted from Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, Boethius and Dialogue. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.

THE AUTHOR

Seth Lerer joined the Stanford faculty as Professor of English in 1990, received a joint appointment in Comparative Literature in 1996, and served as Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature from 1997-2000. His research interests include medieval and Renaissance studies, comparative philology, the history of scholarship, and children's literature. He has published over one hundred articles and reviews and is the author of five books: Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, Boethius and Dialogue, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Chaucer and His Readers, Courtly Letters in the Age of Henry VIII: Literary Culture and the Arts of Deceit, and Error and the Academic Self: The Scholarly Imagination, Medieval to Modern. He is currently completing a History of Children's Literature under contract with the University of Chicago Press.

Copyright © 2007 Columbia University Press




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