Monday, January 15, 2007

Henry Hitchings, Defining The World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary

Back in 1988 at Saint Xavier University, I took a class taught by Dr. John Buck (a visiting professor from Penn State University) on Reformation and 18th Century literature, which introduced me to the writings of Swift, Pope, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Defoe ... and Dr. Samuel Johnson. Since then, I've always had a fondness for the well-balanced turn-of-phrase and satirical wit of those 18th Century writers.

Hitchings's Defining The World is a pure celebration of all things Dr. Johnson. The opening chapters are devoted to a thumbnail sketch of his biography (mostly via Boswell); the majority of the book focuses on Johnson's planning, writing, researching, and building of the Dictionary, and the final chapters discuss its publication, subsequent editions, and overall impact on lexicography. Throughout, Hitchings sprinkles an abundance of sample words and their definitions from the Dictionary as he discusses Johnson's method of composition, professional relationships, personal demons, etc. And the author does a solid job of documenting the various ways in which Johnson's methodology set the standard by which all later dictionaries would be made (for example, the hierarchy of definitions per word and the use of literary passages to illustrate differences in meaning were Johnsonian innovations).

What I enjoyed most here was how much Hitchings obviously relishes the Dictionary despite its many flaws (which Hitchings is pretty upfront about). To undertake the writing of a reference work of this magnitude is a challenge for a committee, let alone one man. But Johnson devoted seven years to its composition, and flaws are inevitable (some of the definitions he wrote were ridiculously obtuse, others just plain wrong, and still others were amusingly snide). But Johnson's Dictionary, for all its imperfections, was an impressive feat at the time and, until the OED came along in the late nineteenth century, was the foremost reference of its kind in English (recall that Becky Sharp even reacts against it in Thackeray's Vanity Fair).

A few years ago I read Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was excellent! If you're interested in the stories behind these two English dictionaries (which, I'll admit, might not seem to be all that "interesting" until you see for yourself!), I'd recommend the Winchester and Hitchings books.

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