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· Historical Drudge Report — Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary ·

"Lexicographer*, a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."

So did Samuel Johnson after eight years of hard work mark himself aptly in his great Dictionary published on April 15, 1755. Though its appearance came late by six years, what's the difference, especially for those given to lasting work? For when it's done well, work can bring official or even officious credit-takers to account. Consider Johnson's way with Philip Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield):

 · Samuel Johnson's Dictionary · Is not a Patron, My Lord [he pointedly sneered], one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known, and do not want it.

You've got to admit, Johnson had style (Grub-Street honesty, I'd call it). But he was also attentive to what it takes to work truly in others' debt. Consider how he wrote of John Milton's Paradise Lost, considering that Johnson's dictionary was not our first:

The highest praise of genius is original invention [Johnson judged]. Milton cannot be said to have contrived the structure of an epic poem, and therefore owes reverence to that vigour and amplitude of mind to which all generations must be indebted for the art of poetical narration, for the texture of the fable, the variation of incidents, the interposition of dialogue, and all the strategems that surprise and enchain attention. But, of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is perhaps the least indebted. He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. From his contemporaries he neither courted nor received support; there is in his writing nothing by which the pride of other authors might be gratified, or favour gained; no exchange of praise, nor solicitation of support. His great works were performed under discountenance, and in blindness, but difficulties vanished at his touch; he was born for whatever is ardous; and his work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first. Samuel Johnson, 'Life of Milton,' Lives of the English Poets, 2 Vols. (London/New York: Dent/Dutton [Everyman's Library]), I, 113-114.

Of such work, one sees no private or personal account taken just for itself, however much one sees the real measure of its judicious certainty. Maybe it's for this reason that Adam Kirsch, by chance writing in Slate in 2003, happily concluded with this thought:

Finally, Johnson's own writing is a model of style. Instead of Fowler or Strunk and White, writers might want to turn to Johnson for lessons in good writing — above all, how to convey the most information in the fewest and clearest words. Johnson's dictionary may not be perfect, but it's still the greatest work of literature in the reference section.

*"I am not so lost in lexicography," Johnson also wrote, "as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven."


Curious that Johnson, of all souls, should find words to be "the daughters of earth" and things "the sons of heaven." I should think that, for Johnson, it would be quite the opposite — that words would be daughters of heaven, while things would be sons of earth.

Or, is that just the way it is for me?

Posted by Loretta Markle on April 19, 2005 02:12 PM

For you, if you're Catholic, yes; for Dr. Johnson it's maybe a matter of being Anglo-Catholic.

Like Martin and Jack, in Swift's A Tale of a Tub, he might be weighing what to do with their brother Peter's coat. "Give the thing to the word and the word to the thing," he could be saying, "then everyone will be happy."

But don't expect a ruling soon. It might be tough renaming Mary, "Pope."

Posted by
Styles on April 19, 2005 02:55 PM

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God."

Posted by Loretta Markle on April 21, 2005 01:37 PM

As Martin Luther would say, "This is most certainly true."

Posted by Styles on April 21, 2005 01:57 PM

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