DR. Johnson’s Dictionary

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DEFINING THE WORLD: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF DR. JOHNSON’S DICTIONARY

By Henry Hitchings

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24, 292 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

It is sad that two of the great creative forces in the English language lived within half a mile of each other for nearly 20 years of the middle 18th century yet met only once and avoided each other thereafter. Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Franklin had so much in common but never clicked and therein lies another tale for another time about why Americans and Britons are said to be separated by a common language.

Our linguistic estrangement dates from these earliest days and has as much to do with what different men Johnson and Franklin were. Yet one cannot help speculate how history might have turned if they had made common cause on a true common tongue.

Language matters perhaps more than any other social relationship. How we talk and write to one another tells us far more than the information being transmitted; it tells us who we are and where we stand in relationship to each other.

This book is entertainingly and informatively written by a talented, young British journalist. Those who want to learn about Johnson’s equally gargantuan appetites and depressions and his strange relationship with Hester Thrale should look elsewhere. But if the development of language and its impact on a culture interest you, then this is a treat. Especially if your version of English is the American brand and you are curious as to why so much of our shared vocabulary has different meanings.

Johnson and Franklin were sons of middling merchants whose prominence in their communities came from minor public office. Franklin’s made candles; Johnson’s was a book seller. Johnson got a better formal education but Franklin had a more profitable training as a printer. Skill with words clearly was the passport to advancement for both as young men and both climbed quickly in the front ranks of their respective country’s writers at very young ages.

Johnson was just 36 when he signed a contract with a consortium of booksellers to produce the first authoritative dictionary of English for standard usage. He was already famous among that stellar literary universe for his witty magazine essays. The deal called for him to receive the princely sum of $1,575 pounds in installments.

According to the research department of the House of Commons that would translate into as much as $642,000 in current dollars, an advance that would get you mentioned in the book section of most newspapers these days, but which translated into far greater purchasing power in those days if it was managed wisely.

This Johnson did not do. First, he underestimated the difficulty of the task he set himself. Instead of three years, he had to portion his advance out over 11. He also hired the most dysfunctional researchers and editorial help, the very drunks and scrapings from that most sordid of writing communities — the ink-stained wretches of Grub Street.

The miracle that was produced was far greater than just a collection of 42,377 words illuminated by some of the most clever, sharp, biting definitions which that troubled, fecund mind could produce. It was a major force for social order, for mid-century British society was in as much disorderly chaos as its language.

We tend to gloss the years of the Hanoverian kings as a stately progression of fat, Germanic chaps named George, instead of a time of regular revolts and almost daily London riots, interlaced with regular wars with France and other nations in the far corners of the world.

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