Letter: Johnson's view of 'fixing' language

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The Independent Online
Sir: Robert Allen, editor of the new Chambers Dictionary, is unfair in his vilification of Dr Johnson ('Gobsmacked by shrimping dweebs', 10 September). The idea that Johnson intended to 'fix' the language in his dictionary is almost as specious as the belief that his definition of the lexicographer as a 'harmless drudge' was delivered without a heavy larding of irony.

There were those who did yearn for a truly 'standard' English, notably Dryden, Pope and Addison, a literary establishment that slightly preceded Johnson's own celebrity, but their emotions were as much nationalistic as linguistic. The French Academie had delivered its own dictionary in 1694 and then, as now, the work indeed aimed at 'fixing' French. To London's literati, such efficiency was deemed a threat from the nation's foe: it must be countered.

But Johnson's preface puts his own position. He had, he admits, 'flattered' himself for a while that such fixing was possible, but had, in compiling his great work, begun to 'fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify'. One cannot, he concludes, 'embalm' a language, and the lexicographer who makes such claims should be derided as soundly as the quack doctor purveying his nostrums for eternal youth.

Yours sincerely,

JONATHON GREEN

London, N7

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