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Colouring in the words

David Self commends a celebration of Dr Johnson's landmark dictionary

Dr Johnson's Dictionary: the extraordinary story of the book that defined the world

By Henry Hitchings

John Murray pound;14.99

An elderly lady borrowed a dictionary from her municipal library. She returned it with the comment: "A very unusual book indeed - but the stories are extremely short, aren't they?" This possibly apocryphal story was not first told about Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, but it might well have been.

For as Henry Hitchings demonstrates, the work "abounds with stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths". As he says:

"It is, in short, a treasure house."

The story Hitchings tells is how Johnson first imagined his giant undertaking, subsequently refined his plan and then laboriously executed it with minimal help over eight years. Interwoven with this narrative is an affectionate, indulgent exploration of Johnson's idiosyncrasies, shortcomings and prejudices. The account concludes with the Dictionary's publication, its slow acceptance and the story of the later editions that established its pre-eminence. For example, a miniature version published in 1821 for use in schools sold 90,000 copies.

It is often said that Johnson's was the first English dictionary. This was by no means the case. By the time he first outlined his plan in 1747, at least a dozen had already been compiled, notably the Dictionarium Britannicum by Nathaniel Bailey, which appeared in 1730. This and two others are acknowledged by Johnson and, even after his own work was published in 1755, Bailey's held sway for the next few decades. By the turn of that century, Johnson's work had become synonymous with the term "dictionary" and he had no real challenger until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. That work, incidentally, was begun in 1860. Forty years later, its team of compilers had reached only the letter F, a fact that makes Johnson's solitary achievement all the more remarkable.

If he had at first thought he might build upon the work of his predecessors, he eventually found this impossible and started work anew.

This was because he was determined not only to define every word, but to illustrate each usage with an example "from the best writers". It takes only a few moments to realise that, if this is your aim, you cannot make a word list and then search out a quotation for each. In a time when nobody had yet compiled a dictionary of quotations and search engines were inconceivable, such a task would have been stupendously slow. Consequently, Johnson's method was to fillet each of his chosen authors, noting on slips the words they used and preserving the most apt examples of their usage.

Definitions came second.

Even this method is mind-blowing in its enormity. The fact that Johnson's plan was completed at all gives credence to Hitchings's claim that it was "the most important British cultural monument of the 18th century".

The Dictionary contains 42,000 carefully constructed entries (each the "story" of a word), and the physical dimensions of the first edition (published in two volumes) are impressive. That edition weighs 20lb, is 20in wide when open, takes up 10in of shelf space and each volume must be rested on a table or lectern when in use. No wonder it was not an immediate bestseller.

But, besides defining the English language, the Dictionary is also an accidental portrait of its compiler. Some of his errors have achieved lasting notoriety: he himself explained his mistake in describing the "pastern" of a horse as its knee as being due to "ignorance, madam, ignorance". His lack of interest in music is apparent in his dismissive entries for "sonata" (defined simply as "a tune") and "guitar" and "violin" (each is merely "a stringed instrument of musick"). He was, however, aware of his century's scientific developments. Among the words he defines are "atom", "gravity" and, surprisingly considering Faraday's experiments were to occur some 60 years later, "electricity". Johnson's strong moral sense intrudes in many entries. He illustrates the use of the word "education" by quoting his contemporary, Swift: its purpose is to teach "the observance of moral duties". His illustrations of the verbs "to teach" and "to instruct" come from the Bible.

But Johnson, as Hitchings is at pains to make clear, was no prude. "Arse", "bum" and "fart" are all defined, even if "penis" and "vagina" are missing.

Indeed, it was the omission of these and other words that led two ladies of the period to congratulate Johnson on their omission. "What, my dears!" he replied. "Then you have been looking for them."

Hitchings's account places the making of the Dictionary within the context of Johnson's life, so we also gain an insight into a neglected period.

Eighteenth-century London was a city where robbery, racketeering and kidnapping were commonplace. Its entertainments included cockfighting, bull-baiting, freak shows and public executions.

But Johnson's principal enjoyment was the coffee house. These "snuggeries" for gentlemen were also libraries, places for the discussion of politics and the precursors of the modern office. Most of all, they were meeting houses for London's developing and rapidly expanding middle class. It was to such an audience that Johnson's Dictionary first appealed. But, as Hitchings amply demonstrates, it is also an original work that continues to define and shape our language.

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