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Thursday 20 Jun 2024

Dr Johnson's Dictionary
Streeter Click

"Defining the World: the extraordinary story of Dr. Johnson's dictionary," by Henry Hitchings and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2005: 292 pages.


Donuts help fulfil some social needs. Lonely, one night, you amble into a coffee shop. "A large decaf, please," you say to the server, "and two, no, make it three, Boston cream donuts." You pick a seat not far from a fellow who seems alone and bored.

After a couple of bites, you blurt, more or less in the general direction of the fellow seated nearby, but available for all in earshot, "They're warm; just made, I think." Thinking out loud is all right, given the time and place.

The fellow nearby motions agreement, and makes a noise. The sound might be a muted, "Yep," or a long, low belch. You're unsure, but it doesn't matter.

A few more words and you're sharing a table. The shared table had sat empty between you and the fellow, neutral space. Six months later, you know more about each other than you believed you'd ever know about anybody.

Any nutrition in a donut is incidental. A donut makes you want another donut. Meeting needs is often boring, and a social spin, such as frying, eases the dreariness.

Life is social fulfilment of biological need. Fruit, vegetables and some meat complete dietary needs. Meeting needs is simple; life calls for more.

Friendships, as weeds, spring up everywhere to meet a basic need. The need is to be among others of our species. Companionship, as Maslov noted, is an essential need of humans, dogs and ants. The social spin is friendships don't happen, but call for building.

Building a friendship means creating a book of rules. Basic rules are honesty, trust and loyalty. Other rules come in and out of play everyday; some kept, some not.

The social fulfilment of biological needs, life, involves a sweeping book of rules. Serve pot roast when the boss comes for Sunday dinner, chicken for a family meal. Don't drink and drive or wear white after Labour Day. Early to bed and early to rise makes you healthy, wealthy and dull.

Life is a social fabric, each stitch a rule. Life's what we tacitly decide it is and ought to be. The decision emerges from our daily contacts with others. We learn what works, what doesn't work and what can benefit from revision. Even an eremite, deep in a cave, ponders social contacts, past and future. The French call this "esprit de l'escalier," remembering the staircase.

Through social contact, we order, control and understand life beyond fulfilment of biological needs. This is our world-view. Our world-view is personal, but common enough to overlap with that of others.

The Dictionary of Dr. Johnson is among the most influential views of the world, personal and sharable, for Anglophones. A common notion is that a dictionary of is an unbiased, factual source for the meaning and use of words. If that were true, one version would do.

Different dictionaries reflect different, if ever so slightly, worldviews. The basic point is clearest in spelling. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) spells favour with a "u," whereas the Merriam Webster omits the "u." The OED reflects an Anglo-European world-view. The Merriam Webster reflects an Anglo-American view.

Dr. Johnson gives us a dictionary reflecting his world-view. A "worldling" is "a mortal set upon profit." His view cohered with the value emphasis of Western European Culture (WEC), then and now, as it must. The focus on making money is a critical part the Anglo WEC creed.

Johnson, as Adam Smith, who wrote "The Wealth of Nations" about the same time, incited the emerging Anglo WEC. Johnson, writes O'Hagan, "was struggling to give English to the people, and he [defined] a nationhood [that is, world-view] from the philosophical energies ... hidden in the ... language and in the strange beauties of [the] greatest literature."

O'Hagan writes that if Johnson hadn't "Johnsonized the world ... English speakers would not be English-speakers as we think of [ourselves]." Our view of the world, our notions of what's right or wrong, good or bad, would be different. The Dictionary "is a perfect and beautiful read ... its influence is unending," decides O'Hagan.

It could hardly be otherwise. The Dictionary beholds what we believe true and important: Johnson defined for the converting. To the degree that we share a view of the world with Johnson, O'Hagan is on mark.

The dictionary solidifies, more than changes. Anglo WEC cohered by expressing its basic view. That Dr. Johnson and his dictionary remain influential suggests how little the essence of the Western European world-view has changed in the last 250 years.


Henry Hitchings provides a lively, engaging telling of the Dictionary tale.

Titbits of folklore, trivia and vivid anecdotes make "Defining the World" as much a novel as a history. Details of fashion, fads and the rise of industrial capitalism offer snapshots of 18th century life, we often fail to notice. Was it all that different?

Johnson comes off as much poet as reporter, defining orgasm as a "sudden vehemence."

The story of the Dictionary is gripping. It was a huge intellectual and physical task. There were 42,000 entries in the first edition, which weighed 20 pounds. There were more than 84,000 exemplars.

Johnson did most of the work himself. A few residents of Grub Street, gin soaked and almost dead when they began, helped with transcription. He finished the Dictionary in a decade. He overcame poverty, dysphoria, disease and a bad marriage, which ended in bereavement. He completed a Herculean effort against the odds.


The Dictionary reflects the life of Johnson. More clearly, it reflects how he interprets life according to the prevailing view of world. Each of us interprets life much the same way.

As an infant, Johnson suffered scrofula, a disease affecting the lymph nodes, a result of infected milk from a wet nurse. The exemplar for putrid, credited to John Arbuthnot, a physician, is "If a nurse feed only on flesh, and drink water, her milk, instead of turning sour, will turn putrid, and smell of urine." He defines issue, a treatment for scrofula, as a "vent made in a muscle for the discharge of humours."

Battels, "to feed on trust," referred to his time at Oxford University, where he studied as a commoner, "a student of second rank." Johnson attended Oxford on a promise. Unlike scholarship or wealthy students, he pledged future earnings to pay for housing and food.

Words were the source of his fortune, which he defined as "the chance of life; means of living." Once in London, he gravitated to Grub Street, "originally ... a street in Moorfields [London] inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems." Johnson worked for "Gentleman's Magazine," and from his experience came the definition for magazine: "a miscellaneous pamphlet, from a periodical miscellany."

Hitchings describes Johnson as "a moral policeman in linguist's clothing." The Dictionary, imbued with "moral instruction," conforms to tradition. Suicide he defines as "the horrid crime of destroying oneself." In a hastily written proposal for the Dictionary, Johnson suggests prudence and piety are as important as preserving the language. From the Bible come the first seven exemplars for instruct.

The Dictionary ignores some prominent thinkers. Thomas Hobbes is an example. Johnson declined to assign authority to their ideas or believed them too controversial. Here's a clear revision of Max Weber, who said, you pick a topic to study for personal reasons and study it in an unbiased way. Johnson is rarely neutral.

A poor marriage soured Johnson. Uxorious describes a man "infected with connubial dotage." Stocks are a "prison for the legs"; the exemplar, "Matrimony is expressed by a ... man standing, his legs ... fast in ... stocks," is from Jonathan Swift. The exemplar for world, from John Dryden, is "Marriage draws a world of business on our hands, subjects us to law suits, and loads us with domestick cares."

His definition of oats confirms a prejudice: "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." A foxhunter is "a man whose chief ambition is to shew his bravery in hunting foxes," reveals a nuanced conscience, which he defines as "the knowledge or faculty by which we judge the goodness or wickedness of ourselves." Prejudices, writes O'Hagan, offered as maxims and opinions as reason imbue the Dictionary with unflinching subjectivity.


Science, when Johnson wrote, had replaced religion as the source of answers. The change in authority shifted the rate of progress from arithmetic to exponential. The new speed called for much control and order, else chaos.

Order mania ruled, and new ideas promoted order. "The price tag," writes Hitchings, "standardized weights and measures, the proliferation of sign posts on ... highways, the increased use [and importance] of account books and calendars" are ideas that came alive in the 18th century. It's hard to imagine life and progress ordered in a different way than today.

The Dictionary was an ordered set of right answers. What's more orderly or controlling than a dictionary? Each word in its proper place, clearly defined. In order, there is authority, acts taken for the good of all, not one. The Dictionary provided control over language and, by extension, thought and action. In doing so, it solidified the cultural, social and moral authority of Western European Culture.


The Dictionary does double duty as biography of author and culture. The bilinguous, "speaking two tongues," agenda is common to all expression, but the Dictionary is most influential. Johnsonization, expression of what is important if our world-view is to persist, was an important step in forming Western European Culture.

The Dictionary is not a dry read because it confirms, in the guise of neutrality, ideas that are near and dear to us.

Hitchings is clear on this point.Earlier biographies of Dr. Johnson seemed unaware of the wider social and cultural place of the Dictionary. Hitchings is not, and he uses this insight to his advantage and our enlightenment. As a result, "Defining the World: the extraordinary story of Dr. Johnson's dictionary," by Henry Hitchings, is rewarding.

Andrew O'Hagan (2006), "Word Wizard," in the New York "Review of Books" for 27 April. Pp. 12-13.

Streeter Click is editor of GrubStreet.ca.

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