Johnson’s Business

Keith Walker

  • A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
    Times, 2558 pp, £45.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 7230 0228 2
  • Dictionary Johnson: Samuel Johnson’s Middle Years by James Clifford
    Heinemann, 372 pp, £10.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 434 13805 3

‘DULL. adj. 8. Not exhilaterating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.’ But they are fun to read, and it’s good to welcome this reprint of Johnson’s first edition (1755).

No dictionary before Webster’s Third International has caused so much comment and controversy, none has been the cause of so many anecdotes and myths, as Johnson’s. Few dictionaries have been so misunderstood and misrepresented. In The American Language H. L. Mencken says repeatedly that Johnson ‘thunders’ or even ‘thunders idiotically’ against such and such a word, when Johnson simply writes ‘a low word’, or ‘a word without etymology’, using a practice common to lexicographers – including the OED and Webster’s Third – of indicating the social status of a word. Mencken confuses Samuel Johnson the writer with Dr Johnson the ogre and bully portrayed by Boswell. James Murray, the author of the OED, succumbed to the same confusion, perhaps, when in a dream he imagined that

Johnson was speaking of his Dictionary and Boswell, in an impish mood, asked ‘What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years’ time a bigger and better dictionary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?’ Johnson grunted. ‘A Dissenter.’ Johnson stirred in his chair. ‘A Scotsman.’ Johnson began, ‘Sir ...’ but Boswell persisted – ‘and that the University of Oxford would publish it.’ ‘Sir,’ thundered Johnson, ‘in order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent.’

Johnson’s Dictionary should be seen (and perhaps this reprint will make the view more possible) as part of various 18th-century endeavours to arrange and make accessible earlier accumulated erudition and experience. Such endeavours include Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728), a work which Johnson drew on for the Dictionary, the French Encyclopédie, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1776), and the more specialised works studied by Lawrence Lipking in his important book, The Ordering of the Arts in 18th-Century England – Charles Burney’s History of Music, for example, Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art and Johnson’s own Lives of the Poets. The Oxford History of English Literature hasn’t ‘superceded’ Johnson’s Lives, and there’s a sense in which we must say that the OED hasn’t superceded Johnson’s Dictionary either.

Two streams contributed to its making, one gentleman and amateur, one professional. In the mid-17th century, the Royal Society established a committee including Dryden, John Evelyn and Edmund Waller, ‘to improve the English tongue’. Nothing much came of this. In 1658, Milton’s nephew Edward Philips had published a New World of English Words which reached its seventh edition by 1720. Swift busied himself with the state of the language in his ‘Proposals for Correcting the English Tongue’ (1712) and elsewhere, hoping that ‘some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever.’ Addison toyed with the idea of writing a dictionary, as Johnson notes in his Life.

Meanwhile, through the 16th and 17th centuries, the English dictionary was slowly developing. Previous English dictionaries had developed from Old English glosses to Latin texts, arranged in rough alphabetical lists, and from Latin-English dictionaries, to lists of hard words, to attempts early in the 18th century to record every word in the language. A simple record, with some jumbled senses, was all that was given by Nathaniel Bailey, Johnson’s immediate predecessor. In his 1736 edition, Bailey had 60,000 entries, about half as many again as Johnson.

In 1747, Johnson, disappointed in his hopes of producing the edition of Shakespeare for which he had issued ‘Proposals’ two years before, published the Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language. This proposed ‘to preserve a purity and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom’. He was later to modify this prescriptive position.

Johnson proposed two decisive innovations in English lexicography, which he carried through with triumphant success. He himself would read the literature of the language, select words, and display them in their contexts by way of illustrative quotations, and he would order and number the senses of words.[1]

Preparing for his dictionary, Johnson single-handedly read almost the whole of English literature since the time of Sidney and Spenser. (Even if he had wanted to go back earlier, there were no reliable editions.) He read Spenser complete. Sidney’s Arcadia. Shakespeare complete. Raleigh’s History of the World. Bacon complete. The Bible. Sir Thomas Browne complete. Milton, including the prose works. Cowley, Waller and Denham. Dryden, including the prose works and the translations. Samuel Butler complete. Pope complete, including the Iliad and the Odyssey. Addison complete. Steele complete. Swift complete. Prior, Gay and Arbuthnot. Thomson’s Seasons. For theology he went to Hooker, Tillotson, William Law and Robert South. For technical and ‘philosophic’ (i.e. scientific) expressions he went to John Ray’s Wisdom of God in the Creation, Grew’s Cosmologia Sacra, William Derham’s Physico-Theology, Thomas Burnett’s Theory of the Earth, Richard Bentley’s Sermons on the Boyle Foundations, George Cheyne’s Philosophical Principles, Henry More’s Antidote against Atheism, Matthew Hale’s Primitive Origination of Mankind, William Camden’s Remains, Newton’s Optics and works by Sir Kenelm Digby.

Johnson drew on hundreds of other writers. To illustrate his reading, and use of quotations, consider the case of George Herbert. Herbert was not much read during the 18th century: there was no edition of his works between 1709 and 1799, although he appears from time to time in anthologies, and was regularised for hymn singing by Samuel Wesley, thereby losing much of his characteristic subtlety. Dryden perhaps alludes to his verse when in ‘Mac Flecknoe’ he advises Shadwell:

Leave writing Plays, and chuse for thy command
Some peaceful Province in Acrostic Land.
There thou maist wings display, and Altars raise,
And torture one poor word Ten thousand Ways.

The identification with Herbert was made by Addison in the Spectator where he singles him out as an exponent of ‘false wit’. After Addison, apart from Wesley’s misplaced devotion, there is probably no one who had anything to say about Herbert until William Cowper’s equivocal praise: ‘At length I met with Herbert’s Poems; and gothic and uncouth as they were, I yet found in them a strain of piety which I could not but admire.’ Gray mentions Herbert once in his letters: correctly, as a priest, and mistakenly, as editor of his brother’s poems.

Johnson was a major critic, who in the Life of Cowley undertook a survey of the Metaphysical poets, so it is reasonable to ask what he knew of Herbert. I have found only three references in his whole work: a mention of Herbert’s letters in the Life of Pope, where he couples them with the letters of Suckling as ‘hardly Known’, and two mentions in his edition of Shakespeare. The first of these references quotes a passage from Chapter Ten of A Priest to the Temple to illustrate the sense ‘counteract’ for ‘meet with’ in glossing The Tempest. The second uses a recollection of the memoir by Barnabas Oley which prefaces Herbert’s Remains (1652). Johnson must have read Izaak Walton’s Life of Herbert, and may have quoted from it in his 28th Rambler, although he does not seem to have used this particular life in his quotations from Walton in the Dictionary.

The Dictionary tells an entirely different story. Here Johnson quotes no less than 120 times from Herbert, 116 times from 47 of the poems in The Temple and a further four times from Herbert’s translation of Luigi Cornaro’s Treatise of the Sober Life. Forty-one words are quoted from The Temple’s long first poem, ‘The Church Porch’, whose aphoristic didacticism would have appealed to Johnson, both in itself and for purposes of lexicographical illumination. The rest of these quotations are taken at fairly regular intervals from the whole of The Temple, but somewhat more sparingly (one word every 66 lines, as opposed to one word every 11 lines from ‘The Church Porch’). It’s hard to be sure what edition Johnson read Herbert in, and the attempt to find out is not made easier by Johnson’s regular practice of modernising his quotations; sometimes (see, for example, cry) he even rewrote them. However, there are some indications that he had access to one of the first four editions (1633-5). ‘Vertue’ is informative in this respect. Under bridal, Johnson quotes the first four lines in the version given by Walton, but the quotation from the last stanza (under give) rejects the Walton ‘improvements’ and changes introduced into the 18th-century editions of Herbert.

Johnson’s treatment of Herbert’s language is usually attentive, and his definitions precise and accurate, but there are moments of carelessness or inattention. He quotes lines 37-40 of ‘The Church-Porch’ (I quote Herbert’s original):

Shall I, to please anothers wine-sprung minde
Lose all mine own? God hath giv’n me a measure
Short of his [i.e. ‘another’s’] canne and body; must I find
A pain in that, wherein he findes a pleasure?

Misinterpreting ‘canne’ (=‘can’, i.e. measure or capacity) for ‘cane’, i.e. walking-stick, he uses the quotation to illustrate ‘cane’. It’s odd, then, that when the same quotation is reused under ‘wine’, ‘canne’ is spelled ‘canne’, as it isn’t in the earlier use. Again, in quoting ‘shooter’ from ‘Artillerie’ correctly, but in the commonplace sense of ‘one who shoots’, he misses the same word a few lines earlier in the unusual sense ‘shooting star’.

A conspicuous feature of his treatment of Herbert is overquotation, strange when you reflect upon the lowly position Herbert held in the 18th century. Illustrating the word ‘fracture’ from ‘Repentance’, Johnson might have contented himself, as OED does, with quoting the line in which it occurs: ‘Fractures well cur’d make us more strong.’ Instead, he quotes the whole stanza:

But thou wilt sin and grief destroy,
That so the broken bones may joy,
And tune together in a well-set song,
  Full of his praises,
  Who dead men raises;
Fractures well cur’d make us more strong.

In view of his remarks on puns elsewhere, Johnson can’t have liked the play on ‘well-set’ (as a song, and as a bone), and although it has Biblical sanction (Psalm 51.8) I expect Johnson found that the idea of bones ‘rejoicing’ made what he would call a ‘harsh’ metaphor. Similar examples of overquoting from Herbert can be found under anneal, gad, skill and swaddle.

We find this kind of thing on nearly every page: under sonnet, where Johnson quotes a whole sonnet by Milton, which doesn’t happen to contain the word ‘sonnet’, under twister, and under vow, where Johnson inserts a whole stanza from Cowley’s ‘Ode upon Liberty’. Look under self, and you will find 22 quotations from Shakespeare.

Johnson designed the Dictionary as a work of entertainment, and instruction, as well as of cold information. He embellished his work with aphorisms, anecdotes an pieces of information drawn from Bacon,

TILER. n.s. (tuilier, Fr. from tile) One whose trade is to cover houses with tiles.

A Flemish tiler, falling from the top of a house upon a Spaniard, killed him; the next of the blood prosecuted his death; and when he will offered pecuniary recompense, nothing would serve him but lex talionis; whereupon the judge said to him, he should go up to the top of the house, and then fall down upon the tiler. Bacon ‘Apophth.’.

Or custody:

The council remonstrated upon Queen Elizabeth the conspiracies against her life, and therefore they advised her, that she should go less abroad weakly attended; but the queen answered, she had rather be dead than put in custody. Bacon.

There are improving precepts of behaviour and morality. Passages from the Bible are frequent in this connection, and from later literature, as in this quotation illustrating the third sense of devious – ‘erring; going astray from rectitude’: ‘One devious step, at first setting out, frequently leads a person into wilderness of doubt and error.’ This is from Richardson’s Clarissa, or rather from an abstract of uplifting quotations from it, from which Johnson quotes about a hundred times.

As befits so intensely a literary work, many passages Johnson is moved to quote are small essays in literary criticism, or observation about literature. Under culprit Johnson has a passage from the preface to Prior’s Solomon which reflects on the public’s relation to a work of literature, a matter to which Johnson was keenly attentive. It led him to the passage of noble capitulation over Gray’s poetry in which ‘he rejoices to concur with the common reader’. The ‘culprit’ passage reads: ‘An author is in the condition of a culprit; the public are his judges: by allowing too much, and condescending too far, he may injure his own cause; and, by pleading and asserting too boldly, he may displease the court.’ As the sole quotation under uncle Johnson quotes a passage from Mrs Lennox’s Shakespeare Illustrated. He chooses a passage that does not exhibit the sense of the word (under Johnson’s rules, there was no need for this), but instead gives a thumbnail interpretation of Hamlet: ‘Hamlet punishes his uncle rather for his own death, than the murder of his father.’ A possible, and interesting, view of the play.

Here is a final example. Under both cowkeeper and hogherd Johnson quotes Broome’s Notes on Pope’s Odyssey: ‘The terms cowkeeper and hogherd are not to be used in our poetry: but there are no fine words in the Greek language.’

As time went on, the personal aspects of the Dictionary assumed more and more prominence. W. K. Wimsatt has argued that Johnson has private fun in inserting 27 quotations from Cleveland’s The Rebell Scot, a vigorous and virulent satire replete with loathing for the Scotch (Wimsatt missed two quotations under Grenado and Solund-goose), and I think I can add some more evidence of Johnson’s anti-Scotch prejudice. Under bepiss, ‘To wet with urine’, his sole quotation is: ‘One caused, at a feast, a bagpipe to be played, which made the knight bepiss himself, to the great diversion of all then present, as well as confusion of himself.’ Against Wimsatt’s theory I must urge that The Rebell Scot is by far Cleveland’s best poem as well as one of his longest. Johnson has 120 quotes from elsewhere in Cleveland’s not very extensive oeuvre, and I find it significant that Johnson nowhere quotes Merchant of Venice, when Shakespeare writes:

And others, when the bagpipe sings i’th’nose,
Cannot contain their urine ...

Very occasionally Johnson inserts a private joke. I don’t think any commentator has noticed that under nonsense, Johnson innocently has a passage from pope’s edition of Shakespeare: ‘This nonsense got into all the following editions by a mistake of the stage editors.’ The ‘nonsense’ that Pope is talking about is the folio reading of Henry V: ‘his Nose was as sharpe as a Pen and a Table of greene fields.’ Most modern scholars agree that the folio reading here is, indeed, ‘nonsense’, but all scholars agree in rejecting Pope’s explanation: ‘A table was here directed to be brought in (it being a scene in a tavern where they drink at parting), and this direction crept into the text from the margin. Greenfield was the name of the property-man in that time, who furnished implements, etc. for the actors ...’ In his edition of Shakespeare, Johnson, like most modern editors, admits Theobald’s emendation, ‘for his nose was as sharp as a pen’, and ‘a [he] babbled of greenfields,’ but in his notes Johnson writes: Theobald’s emendation ‘we would have allowed to be uncommonly happy, had we not been prejudiced against it by Mr Pope’s ... note, with which, as it excites merriment, we are loath to part.’

Johnson’s Dictionary was attacked on publication, and parodied. None of the parodies have survived. Its howlers, like pastern ‘the knee of a horse’, and prejudicial definitions like excise, ‘A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid’, quickly became notorious.[2] A few blunders were overlooked. The spurious word foupe was introduced in lexicography, if not to the language, by Johnson’s having misread a long s for f in the following passages from Camden’s Remains: ‘We pronounce, by the confession of strangers, as moderately as any of the northern nations, who soupe their words out of the throat with fat and full spirits.’ (Johnson defined this new word ‘to drive with sudden impetuosity’.) I note one further example, under surprise, where Johnson is misled by a passage in King’s Art of Cookery:

Few care for carving trifles in disguise,
or that fantastic dish some call surprise.

He defines ‘surprise’ as ‘A dish, I suppose, that has nothing in it’.

The Dictionary quickly established itself. Nathan Bailey published a folio version of his dictionary in the same year, in which, following Johnson, he numbered the senses of words. He also imitated Johnson in other ways: Philip Gove has provided a useful table of their treatments of the word conceit.[3]

JOHNSON: 1. Conception ... image in the mind ... In laughing there ever precedeth a conceit of something ridiculous, and therefore it is proper to man. Bacon’s Nat. Hist.

BAILEY: 1. Conception, image of the mind. In laughing there ever precedeth a conceit of something ridiculous, and therefore it is proper to man. Bacon.

And so on through, curiously enough, eight identical senses. There are other indications of how Johnson’s authority was accepted. He had advertised for etymologies, and someone had replied anonymously with the fanciful etymology for curmudgeon from coeur and méchant. This Johnson duly entered into his dictionary: ‘curmudgeon. n.s.(it is a vitious manner of pronouncing coeur mechant, Fr. An unknown correspondent.) An avaricious churlish fellow; a miser; a niggard; a churl; a griper.’ In 1775, when John Ash came to compile his dictionary he simply took over Johnson’s etymology, without thinking too much, and produced the following (shortening Johnson’s definition in the process): ‘CURMUDGEON (s. from the French coeur unknown, and mechant, a correspondent) A miser, a churl, a griper.’

Johnson revised his Dictionary in 1773. In 1801 George Mason published a Supplement to Johnson’s English Dictionary: of which the palpable errors are attempted to be rectified and its material omissions supplied. H. J. Todd published a revised edition in five volumes in 1818, and R. G. Latham published a revision in 1866-70. Oddest of all, in 1820 Richard Paul Jodrell produced his Philology of the English Language, a large folio devoted wholly to 1. words which Johnson had left out of his dictionary; 2. later words; and 3. words which Jodrell felt Johnson had not adequately illustrated.

Now Times Books have produced a full-size facsimile of the first (1755) edition. It is sometimes no more than adequately reproduced, and the mock-leather binding is extremely nasty, but at less than twopence a folio page one can’t complain. It is not clear which copy or copies were used for the facsimile. In his Preface Robert W. Burchfield, Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries,[4] doesn’t betray much acquaintance with Johnson, or, it must be said, with the dictionary he is introducing, and seems embarrassed by the whole thing – a Stirling Moss invited to test drive an Austin Seven. He keeps on reminding us how very, well, literary an enterprise it is, by which he means quaint, unreliable, unstable, unrigorous and unscientific. Dryden, or Macaulay, or T. S. Eliot, he thinks, could have done just as well: but they were caught up in ‘their own “intolerable wrestle with words”.’ Burchfield is indulgent to the ‘whimsical and licentious’ manifestations of Johnson’s personality (i.e. prejudicial definitions and the like) – rightly, I think, although I would question his assumption that lexicography has got beyond all that. OED’s ‘Masturbate: to practise self-abuse’ (still in print today) contrives to be both unhelpful (if you don’t know how) and medically untrue.

I wish Burchfield had told us in what sense he thinks Johnson was ‘superceded’ by the dictionaries of Charles Richardson (1835) and Noah Webster. No one, I think, has followed Richardson in doing away with definitions. To abandon one of Johnson’s greatest innovations, the numbering and ordering of senses, might be regarded as a regression. And Webster’s advances on Johnson include wholesale plagiarisation of his definitions and his quotations. (Johnson is the only lexicographer before James Murray to show any scrupulousness in acknowledging sources.)

I also wish that Burchfield had written about what I imagine him uniquely qualified to write about – Johnson’s unusual delicacy and precision in defining. This was a matter to which Johnson himself called attention. Thomas Campbell reports:

He said that Kendric had borrowed all his dictionary from him. ‘Why,’ says Boswell, ‘every man who writes a dictionary must borrow.’ ‘No Sir,’ says Johnson, ‘that is not necessary.’ ‘Why,’ says Boswell, ‘have not you a great deal in common with those that wrote before you?’ ‘Yes Sir,’ says Johnson, ‘I have the words, but my business was not to make words but to explain them.’

The much-derided over-complication of the definition of network is usually brought forward at Johnson’s expense (as, I’m sorry to say, it is here), although we now know that it represents a simplification of earlier definitions. We may agree that bear, ‘a rough, savage animal’, won’t do, either, though it probably is an improvement on whatever Bailey had. But I would want to argue that Johnson is at his best and possibly most typical in a definition such as needle: ‘A small instrument pointed at one end to pierce cloth, and perforated at the other to receive the thread, used in sewing’. OED has more than half as many words again, and adds only one point of substance, that the instrument is slender.

The period of Johnson’s life when he was engaged in the Dictionary has been chronicled in meticulous detail by James L. Clifford, whose work, regarded as ‘life’ rather than ‘life and letters’, is definitive. Clifford adds a few facts about the making of the Dictionary from the unpublished researches of Eugene Thomas. Mountains of letters in the MS room of the British Library must have been sifted to glean the information of who was at the first night of Irene. Clifford gives more space to the privies in Johnson’s Gough Square house than to his philosophical masterpiece, ‘Review of a Free Enquiry’, and ends his account when Johnson was awarded his pension, could stop working, and devote himself to talk and tea. It is pleasant to be able to record that in the succeeding years Johnson did not tamper with the definition of pension he had given in the Dictionary: ‘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.’

[1] Prompted by Johnson’s plan, Benjamin Martin published a Dictionary in 1749 with the senses ordered and numbered, but without illustrative quotations.

[2] Clifford shows how near Johnson came to prosecution for criminal libel.

[3] ‘Notes on Serialisation’, Proceedings of the Oxford Bibliographical Society (5, 1940, 305-22).

[4] Long a quarry for scholarly research, OED itself comes under scrutiny by Jürgen Schäffer in Documentation in the ‘OED’: Shakespeare and Nashe as Test Cases (Clarendon, 176 pp., £11, 0 19 811938 0), which looks at OED’s coverage of Shakespeare, Nashe, Malory and Wyatt, and develops statistical methods which enable us to measure its accuracy in dating.