Wednesday 18 September 2013


"A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."  That was how Dr Samuel Johnson described himself after spending nearly a decade assembling one of the great dictionaries of the world.  He was/is known widely as Dr Johnson but he never earned it in the normal way, although he was eventually given an honorary doctorate by Trinity College Dublin when he was in his mid 50s.  Like everyone of his generation he had two birthdays OS and NS to take account of the change (in the United Kingdom) from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar on 14 September 1752.  So Johnson was born on 7th Sept 1709 (OS) but the day was/is generally celebrated after 1752 on 18th September.  For example, his birthplace Lichfield is having a knees-up this weekend.

And to show that  Lexicography is alive and well and living in Chicago, check out Erin McKean and her on-line meta-dictionary wordnik, which offers a word-a-day.  But then so does Anu Garg at AWAD.  McKean's Law aka Muphry's Law: "Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error." been there, done that.

No scientist today working on whatever sort of contract, would tolerate the privations that Johnson endured at the centre of a life in letters.  His great indignant rolling polemic against his 'patron' the Earl of Chesterfield "Is not a patron, my lord, 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." calls forth a Wildean "I wish I'd said that", and serves to illustrate how his rich pals imagined that he could live on air and invective.

Johnson was famous for other things, like his opinion of The Giant's Causeway "Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see; or his eulogy to our own Oliver Goldsmith "No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had" a sentiment echoed in verse by David Garrick 
"Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,
Who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll
and his bewildered contempt for Scotland through which he was dragged by his friend and biographer James Boswell: ". . .the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England. But it is dictionary that we credit and excerpt today.

COUGH A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity.
DEPUCELATE: To bereave of virginity. 
NETWORK Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.
OATS A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
PATRON One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is repaid in flattery.
PENSION An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.

And for dessert, less you think that Johnson's is the only dictionary with a sense of humour:
ECLAIR A cake, long in shape but short in duration (Chambers 20th Century).

Viva la Arts Block!

1 comment:

  1. You need a dictionary to read the dictionary...vellicated, serosity, reticulated, decussated, intersticed! Where's your globish gone??