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Dr Johnson's great Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, writes Henry Hitchings, represents "an audacious attempt to tame his unruly native tongue". It ranks as "the most important British cultural monument" of the century and "tells us more about [its] society - lustily commercial, cultivated but energetic, politically volatile yet eager for consensus - than any other work". It is both "a treasure house" and "an encyclopedia in disguise", full of "stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths". These are large though not implausible claims. But, beyond its obvious value as a scholarly tool, Hitchings also wants us to see the dictionary as a personal work, deeply if often unintentionally revealing of Johnson's loyalties and anxieties.
Robert Browning read through all 43,000 entries in preparation for his career as a poet, but few other people can have been tempted to do the same. Hitchings offers us a highly entertaining guided tour: a combination of biographical sketch, social history and analysis of Johnson's preoccupations and techniques, illustrated throughout with wonderful material from the dictionary.
The achievement was astonishing. Many national dictionaries have been produced by huge teams over many decades. Johnson worked essentially alone, aided only by a few amanuenses employed as much out of charity as for their skills. He was so delayed by illness, depression and financial pressures that, as he remarks in the Preface, he ended up indifferent to the book's reception - all the people whose views he cared about had died in the meantime.
Yet from contract to publication the whole job took a mere nine years. Johnson himself warned readers of "a few wild blunders, and risible absurdities". Hitchings cites his admissions of ignorance, an error about the sex life of the elephant and a few implausible etymologies. But he also cites many splendidly evocative definitions, as when a puppet is described as "a wooden tragedian", an embryo "the offspring yet unfinished in the womb", while "to hiccough" is "to sob with convulsion of the stomach". And he relishes the lost words - "bedswerver", "bellygod", "goldfinder" (for a lavatory cleaner), "shapesmith" (or bodybuilder) - which give such vivid glimpses of 18th-century life.
Johnson's quotations reflect his literary tastes, religious piety and conservative politics. He had a particular fondness for Sir Thomas Browne, whose Pseudodoxia Epidemica - "a giant compendium of popular misconceptions and antique thinking" - was published in 1646. It is from here, as Hitchings notes, that he imports into the dictionary bizarre tales of "boiled hedgehog's eyes, asymmetric badgers, self-castrating beavers, hares intoxicated with hemlock" - tales which read like "a mixture of Macbeth and Hieronymus Bosch".
Hitchings homes in on Johnson's choice of entries and quotations to explore his attitudes to marriage, melancholy, jargon, Englishness, luxury and fashion. Much of this is convincing or intriguing. But it does occasionally get far-fetched. If Johnson includes a few quotations from friends or writers born in his home town of Lichfield, does this really give the finished dictionary "a warm air of sociability"? And can we honestly detect "a hint of nostalgia for collegiate existence" in two straightforward definitions of terms specific to Oxford university life?
There are surely limits to which dictionaries can be read as autobiographical. Yet anyone interested in dictionaries, Dr Johnson or the English language will surely spend many happy hours with this book.
Matthew J Reisz is editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'
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