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.
The class relationships that had existed since feudal times had been broken by a new commercial and industrial middle class whose agendas ranged from the most idealistic nations of individual liberty to the most violent and debauched forms of individual licentiousness.
This is where the conflict lay between Johnson and Franklin, and with them our two versions of the English language came to the dagger’s point. When Franklin arrived in London in 1757 the two men were among the most famous and celebrated figures of the age.
Johnson’s dictionary had come out two years before to deserved notoriety despite its bulk (two huge volumes weighing more than 20 pounds) and the cost of four pounds, 10 shillings (roughly $1,800 in today’s sums). Yet his, and its, authority was already acknowledged even among people who would never afford to own one of the just 2000 copies first printed.
Franklin, who over the next 18 years would be the London lobbyist for increasingly restive American colonies, was the most honored scientist of his day and (through myriad translations of his “Poor Richard’s Almanack”) one of the most admired for his sagacity.
As the proprietor of America’s leading newspaper, as the chief administrator of the colonial postal delivery system, as the leader of a chain of other newspapers, as an indefatigable polemicist, he had created a unique form of Internet that in turn transformed 13 distant and mutually suspicious societies into a uniquely American consciousness fully 20 years before the Revolution erupted.
As part of that exercise he had enlivened the American version of English with the contributions of more accurate, more recognizable, more convenient words and phrases that were pouring into the vocabulary from immigrants from all over the world — chiefly those from Germany, France, Scotland, Ireland, Spain —and from the indigenous Indian languages as well.
He tirelessly preached education as the way to success and through the Almanack’s especially repeated lessons on how these new arrivals could become something called Americans.
This was not the language of Samuel Johnson by any means. Arrayed against Franklin and his Whiggish democratic descriptive language stood “A Dictionary of the English Language In Which The words are deduced from their Originals and Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers.”
Johnson’s dictionary sought to do more than define a large, but still limited, chunk of the more than 250,000 words in use in Britain at the time. The man was a firm high Tory who believed in the rule of kings and the prerogatives of a landed upper class as the only source of social stability.
In addition to seeking examples that taught moral uplift according to the teachings of the Church of England, Johnson sought his definitions and precedent examples of usage from those moral and political authors whose opinions matched his. Other, even more prominent, poets and authors were ignored including some who had helped shape Franklin’s personal beliefs. Words from “foreign sources” were set out in italic type.
Because of these strictures, errors were inevitable, some of them howlingly funny. My favorite is a definition of elephants which repeats an earlier fable that females engage in sex by lying on their backs. But the world took the stern prescriptions of the dictionary for what it was intended to be — the definitive source for how upper class Englishmen should spell, write and speak. No others need apply.
Not surprisingly, the glib and facetious Franklin represented all that was bumptious, disturbing and crass about ungrateful colonials and their treasonous demands. Matters were not helped when one of Franklin’s quips — “I do not trust a man who only spells a word in one way” — got back him.
Nothing that mutual friends could do helped. William Strahan, an influential printer, had been one of Franklin’s earliest, closest friends and transatlantic correspondents. It was on Strahan’s straining presses that Johnson’s pages were laid out and printed in serial form since no publisher in London had enough pieces of type to print it in one go. When Johnson would plunge into one of his deep despairs it was Strahan who bucked him up and doled out another tranche of money to keep him going.
Yet when the pair met at Dr. Thomas Bray’s orphanage for the cast-off children of London’s streets, Johnson cut Franklin dead and would never see him again. Franklin for his part never sought any further acquaintance for in truth he did not like the “Dictionary” excluding tone.
Indeed, decades later in the final years of his life he would give aid and encouragement to a young American lexicographer named Noah Webster who had already achieved success with his famed “Blue Backed Reader,” which both taught reading, spelling and grammar.
George Washington, the new president of the new republic, had offered Webster the post of tutor to his Custis grandchildren; the restriction was he could do no other work. Despite his infirmity, Franklin roused himself and urged Webster to turn down the job and push on towards his goal of creating a dictionary of American English.
Do it, Franklin wrote, “as an act of defiance” to the class constraints and rigidities of English English. Both men knew that language is a plastic affair that must adjust itself to new ways of expression, new words, new usages of old ones.
The result in 1806 was Webster’s first dictionary which has been the standard for descriptive rather than prescriptive lexicography — what words are being used instead of what words should be used. That dividing line between American dictionaries — Webster’s and others — and one’s such as the Oxford University Dictionary remains with us today.
But first there was Johnson and his extraordinary creation, even Webster acknowledged that. It makes a great story.
James Srodes is a Washington author whose latest book, “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father,” is published by Regnery.