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How Johnson did it in 42,773 words

Dr Johnson’s Dictionary
Henry Hitchings
John Murray 2005

The fifteenth of April marked the 250th anniversary of the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary, the making of which Hitchings has subtitled The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World. Johnson lives on as a personality, immortalised by Boswell, but more for his idiosyncrasies and oracular bon mots than for his literary eminence. Should interest flag, the appearance of another biography or an interesting book, such as this one, revives him as an icon.

This is not to minimize his status as a writer (after all, how many eighteenth-century writers are nowadays – a word barely admitted by Johnson – read for pleasure?) However, the considerable bibliography listed by Boswell does consist mostly of what Johnson would certainly have regarded as ephemera, though the 208 bi-weekly numbers of The Rambler (March 20th, 1750 – March 14th, 1752), essays of 1200 – 1500 words, were collected, revised and published, going through ten editions during the lifetime of the author. His novel Rasselas can be compared to its advantage with Voltaire’s Candide, as treating the same subject matter in greater moral depth than Voltaire’s cynicism could plumb. Both were published in 1759 and so closely together that Johnson remarked that “there was not time for imitation”. Written hurriedly in a week to pay for his mother’s funeral and sent to the printer in instalments, it was never, Johnson claimed, actually read by himself – until 22 years later, when he came across a copy in Boswell’s coach, which he devoured with great interest.

Between the ephemeral and the immortal lies a dictionary, or, I should say lay. Until forty or fifty years ago the same dictionary could stay on the shelf for reference for the same period of time. Now the paperback dictionary attests its impermanence, as technological and social neologisms crowd in for recognition and definition. Whereas we accept the fluidity of our vocabulary and by extension of our language, from the late seventeenth century on there was a general suspicion, voiced by Dryden, Defoe and Swift, that both would lead to incomprehensibility. An authoritative” dictionary would prevent such a trend getting out of hand by “fixing” the meaning of words and even, by excluding some as unsuitable, “refining” the language “for ever”. Johnson moved away from this purist to the pragmatic approach of recording words which were used rather than prescribing those which should be. But he confined himself to the written word, preferably from the works of authors who were dead. There was a more practical reason for publishing a dictionary: the booksellers saw the need to replace the inadequate ones available – and Hitchings supplies some definitions from the “best work of the period” to make this apparent. The bookseller Robert Dodsley takes the credit for perceiving that compiling a dictionary was a one-man job, a far from obvious fact, and that Johnson was the one man. Johnson was at first hesitant, then confident: “I have no doubt that I can do it in three years.” In fact it took seven, and nearly eight from when the contract to undertake it was signed. As a single bookseller could not underwrite this project, Dodsley formed a consortium with three others. Johnson was to be paid 1,500 guineas (£1,575) which Hitchings reckons to be worth £150,000 in our money. Johnson took on all the expenses of producing the actual work, though the booksellers paid the printer some £1,200 and spent £1,500 on paper. Thus the total outlay was more than £4,000.

The wealthy printer William Straham was someone who took care to obtain excellent fonts and high quality paper (“thick, almost luxurious to the touch”) and became Johnson’s good friend and, to a certain extent, his banker and manager. There is no mention of any solicitation for subscribers and the only patronage mentioned as having ever been sought (famously in vain) was that of the Earl of Chesterfield, to whom Johnson addressed his prospectus, A Plan for an English Dictionary, receiving only a paltry £10 in acknowledgement. There seems to be no explanation – certainly not from the Earl himself – for this indifference in someone who had been flatteringly addressed by Johnson as one “whose authority in our language is so generally acknowledged”. In the end, as Johnson wrote in the Preface (composed, as most prefaces are, at the completion of the work), “The English dictionary was written . . . without any patronage of the great”. And his magisterial response to Chesterfield’s attempt to ingratiate himself ex post facto is too well known to recount here.

Johnson moved into a large house, 17 Gough Square, which still stands, the only one of Johnson residences to do so, paying £30 a year rent. It had, and still has, a large garret well-lit by daylight and this was where the work was done. Like all other dictionary-makers, Johnson plundered the word-lists of others, but the definitions were all his own and he dealt faithfully with the many shades of meaning of such common words as “put”, “take”, “in” and “up”. He was not the first to use illustrative quotations from “authoritative sources”, many taken from his capacious memory, often inaccurate and sometimes improved to fit, others picked out from (not, Hitchings makes clear, searched for in) the concurrent reading he carried out for the purpose: he mentions that he had never read Bacon until then. Careful of their moral effect, Johnson excluded a number of authors (Thomas Hobbes, for a start) and, of the 42,000 plus words defined; some 10&percent; were garnished with quotations from the Authorised Version of the Bible. The words from the quotations, garnered in this almost random and haphazard manner, but also with regard to their use, not only supplemented those already available, but in due course became his preferred method of generating them.

Boswell did not meet Johnson until eight years after the Dictionary was published and Hitchings maintains that he did not understand the method of its compilation. Nor how laborious it was as a task, something that Johnson himself, safe now in his celebrity, tended to make light of, even suggesting that it was one he had contemplated before being asked to do it. One of the obstacles to its progress was that Johnson was a convivial man, the last to lock himself away and get on with the job. Helpers were needed, amanuenses who copied out on paper slips the marked quotations – in soft pencil, easily erased with breadcrumbs, Johnson claimed – from the books he quarried them from, and filed them until they were needed for the words embedded in them. Such helpers were not acknowledged, as they would be in a modern preface. Some of them Hitchings identifies; there seem to have been six in all, though never more than four at work at a time. They seem to have been hacks down on their luck, badly in need of a job and personally known to Johnson.

It would not, I think, be unfair to say that Hitchings wanders up many byways in describing Johnson’s methods and way of life, but these, after all, parallel Johnson’s own habits. For example, a businesslike visit to Oxford to browse in the Bodleian and consult persons likely to be helpful in the compilation of introductory essays was extended for social reasons. However, most readers will hardly feel helped by the author’s chapter headings, which proceed alphabetically, from Adventurous to Zootomy, with words and definitions from the Dictionary. This might have seemed a good idea at the time, but the link with the chapter contents is tenuous. The chapter in which Johnson deals with scientific terms is “Microscope”, which should remind the reader and reviewer of its subject and “Publication” is about just that for the ultimate appearance of the finished work. “Philology” is not where the naive might have expected to find Johnson’s inadequate treatment of etymology – that is under “Lexicographer”. But it does tell us that “not more than 5,000 Old English words have survived into modern usage,” though it is under “Pastern” that we discover that perhaps “a well-educated adult . . . has an active vocabulary of around 50,000 words”.

This quirk is the more unfortunate because Hitchins has amassed an enormous amount of material about words, though in the way of such things, in small packets, which the reader, on encountering, thinks: “How interesting,” and then forgets about or cannot remember their context. Though the chapter headings will not help him, the General Index, which is a good one, may, and so may the Index of Words, 476 in all, which Hitchings has picked out for comment, or at least a mention – more than 10% of those in the Dictionary. All the old chestnuts are there, of course – oats, network, pastern, patron, pension, Whig, Tory, excise and lexicographer – and many others intriguing enough to look up. Sixty, by my count, are no longer in use (though I had hopes of “boghouse”). A surprise to me, as a zoologist, is that “zootomy” is still extant, though perhaps as a courtesy to Johnson’s last word. Doubtless some, such as “barbecue” (a hog dressed whole, in the West Indian manner), have changed their meaning, if intelligibly. Some were plainly redundant: Johnson has “gazingstock”, “laughingstock” and “pointingstock”, but one would have to delve into the Dictionary itself to find from its quotations if they were concurrent. He said – perhaps jokingly – that he had coined only five words himself. Contemporaries found some of his inclusions far-fetched, including, I can’t help thinking, “subderisorious” (scoffing or ridiculing with tenderness and delicacy), a practice I wish could be substituted for what goes on now. Do political cartoons, for example, have to be quite so disgusting?

Publication day came at last. 2,000 copies had been printed, at a price of £4 10s; if all were sold, they would generate £9,000, more than twice the booksellers’ investment. What did – what does – it look like? It is massive: 20 pounds weight, 10 inches wide and one foot six inches deep, consisting of 2,300 pages, containing 42,773 words with their definitions and illustrative quotations. Though designed to be bound in two volumes, it was often put into four – the British Library’s copy, stacked up, is nearly ten inches high. Aesthetically, with its fine typeface and spacing, it makes a good impression. The public reception was favourable and Johnson rose from obscurity to recognition – it is possible that but for this achievement and rise in status, Boswell would never have met (or wanted to meet) him and written his masterpiece, leaving him a next to unknown eighteenth century literary figure. But fame, such as it was, did not bring financial security. He had been paid for his work as he went along and there was nothing left; in fact, he had been paid £100 too much, a debt which the booksellers forgave him. Boswell’s bibliography shows that he continued what looks like literary hack work – reviews and essays in the Literary Review and prefaces to other men’s works. He also, from 1758 to 1760, issued a weekly essay, The Idler, in the style of The Rambler; it also was collected and issued in bound form at the completion of the series.

In 1762, seven years after the publication of the Dictionary, Johnson was rescued from this hand to mouth existence by being awarded a state pension of £300. His sentiments on pensions of this kind (the word did not have its modern meaning) were well known from his Dictionary definition “. . . generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country” and he consulted a number of friends as to whether he should accept one. The suspicion of bribery to keep the government immune from attack by a writer of Johnson’s quality was not unreasonable, but we need not disbelieve his account that the Earl of Bute, who was responsible for such handouts, when thanked, said to him (twice, to ensure his hearing it), “It is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done.” Thomas Sheridan, among others, had set the ball rolling: in case anyone should chalk this up to the credit of the dramatist (who was eleven at the time), I should make clear this was his father (who obtained a pension for himself as well). Johnson, on being told by him that the pension was to be granted, was fervent in his gratitude to the King, finding he could express himself fully only by employing the French word penetre.

And there, I think, we can leave him, with a comfortable standard of living, soon to be boosted further a year or two later by the hospitality of the Thrales, who set aside a room for his use in both their town and country houses. He was delighted to receive a pension and bore the sneers of Wilkes and others philosophically. If his writings became less polemical, the accession of George III in 1760, who “gloried in the name of Briton”, was an excuse for Johnson to tone down his hostility to the House of Hanover. He even wrote a pamphlet against the rebellious American colonists. But he never altered the definition of “pension” in later editions of the Dictionary.

But greater ease could not guarantee greater happiness and Johnson remained all his life subject to bouts of melancholy, or clinical depression as they would doubtless now be diagnosed, a condition not alleviated by the sombre tenets of his religious beliefs. Even the generosity which others noted he was now more able to afford can only have brought him a sense of stern rectitude to counter the irritation he must have felt at the quarrels of the indigent characters he gave shelter to. He did not stop work by any means. His edition of Shakespeare, with prefaces and notes, and his Lives of the Poets still lay in the future, though delayed now not only by his indolence but also a lack of urgency. And we can be quite sure that without his pension (and without Boswell) he would never have made the expedition that produced his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

2 comments to How Johnson did it in 42,773 words

  • Johnson’s process on the Dictionary can be profitably compared to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, starting about a century later. I have always been amazed at the story of William Chester Minor as told here and in the book “The Professor and the Madman”.

  • Gary Gunnels

    I’ve always perferred Laurence Sterne myself. Of Sterne and I are both heavily influenced by Rabelais, Montaigne and Cervantes so that may be why.