Dr. Johnson's Dictionary

Henry Hitchings

Read April 2006

Driving east from Birmingham the traveler sees a wonderful sight: the signs to Lichfield, birthplace of Samuel Johnson. It was, in fact, a surprisingly fertile breeding ground for notable personalities of his time, a fact that Hitchings documents but does not bother to explain.

The details of Johnson's life are fairly well known, but documentation on his monumental work—his Dictionary—is unreliable. Indeed, Boswell's own account (written nearly a decade after the work was completed) is remarkably shoddy and indeed ludicrous, as Hitchings demonstrates by experiment (p. 70).

Scientific classification was in the air, and dictionaries for English were also around. What sets Johnson's work apart is its breadth, its citations, its thoroughness, and its character. The very matter of classification caused Johnson much sorrow. Tantalizingly, Hitchings mentions the grand effort of the French, but docs not describe how they wrestled with similar issues. (He also mentions the existence of dictionaries for other languages but does not describe these in any detail.) Also, while the author devotes much room to words, he spends virtually none on grammar.

While other efforts earn too little mention, they are also not the subject of this book. Where it does focus on the Dictionary, this is an enjoyable little volume. Hitchings writes stylishly, and the book is peppered with Dictionary extracts. The author's abcedarian tendencies are most evident in the inclusion of two indicies, the extra one being for words in the book. (The regular index is, however, a bit shaky: for instance, Richard Wise is indexed as being on page 1751, about 1500 pages past the book's end.)

Is Johnson's book merely a historical footnote in today's world? Perhaps not. The author points out (p. 250) that any interpretation of the original intent of the US constitution must take into account the contemporary meaning of its words—for which Johnson is our principal guide.

Finally, the author deserves our scorn for his subtitle, ``The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World'', one that he can barely justify himself. When, oh when, will this trend run its course?