Shapers of the Language 6: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Samuel Johnson produced some of the most memorable words in English. Many of them were spoken, and, recorded by his biographer James Boswell, feature in any book of English quotations. But his written style, too, is matchless, and any one example will be as good as any other, but in the context of language it’s particularly worth quoting:

Pedantry is the unseasonable ostentation of learning. It may be discovered either in the choice of a subject, or in the manner of treating it. He is undoubtedly guilty of pedantry, who, when he has made himself master of some abstruse and uncultivated part of knowledge, obtrudes his remarks and discoveries upon those whom he believes unable to judge of his proficiency and from whom, as he cannot fear contradiction, he cannot properly expect applause.

His essays published in the journals ‘The Rambler’ and ‘The Idler’, together with his fictional ‘Rasselas’ and his poem ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, would have been enough to earn him his place in the canon of English literature. But it was with his dictionary that he made his greatest contribution to the language. He at first thought that he might be able to ‘fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition.’ But he soon realised the futility of doing so:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

He was right about the mutability of language, but wrong to associate it with ‘folly, vanity, and affectation’. For, as he says later when rejecting academies for the regulation of language, ‘to enchain syllables, and to lash [tie down] the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.’

 

Johnson’s Dictionary is by no means perfect. Many of his definitions are, if entertaining, idiosyncratic. He gives little information about a word’s origins or about how it is pronounced. His was not even the first English dictionary. It was, however, the biggest and the most influential until the publication in the twentieth century of the Oxford English Dictionary. For many years and for many people, ‘the dictionary’ meant ‘Johnson’s Dictionary’.

The first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, said that

in truth, Dr. Johnson had been preceded by scores of workers, each of whom had added his stone or stones to the lexicographic cairn, which had already risen to goodly proportions when Johnson made to it his own splendid contribution.

But if he built on the foundations of others, his cairn in turn became a mountain from the summit of which subsequent lexicographers, like Newton standing on the shoulders of giants, were able to see further.

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