The lost art of lexicography

19th April 1996 at 01:00
A DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, Apple MacPC dual format CD-Rom Edited by Anne McDermott, Pounds 195 plus VAT, Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building, Shaftesbury Street, Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 2RU. Tel: 01223 312393

Boswell, alias Hugh John, travels to the launch of Dr Johnson's dictionary of the English language on CD-Rom.

Spring 1996. Doctor Johnson and I found ourselves in Lichfield, the town of his birth, to celebrate the publication of his esteemed dictionary on a miraculous device called a CD-Rom. On this silvery disc, truly a marvel of science and yet no more than five inches in diameter, is contained the whole of Johnson's famed lexicon. That is to say, the first and fourth editions of his wondrous work comprising a total of 86,000 entries, 141,000 definitions of words, and 222,000 quotations extracted from the good Doctor's great knowledge of the literature of antiquity and of more recent times.

And so to the demonstration, which took place at the Birthplace Museum, before an audience of civic dignitaries, luminaries and puny scribblers. On a square, lighted box, no larger than a footstool, appeared the most fantastic image, the simulacrum of my friend's dictionary. By tapping a mechanical attachment, known in common parlance as a "mouse", it was possible to summon any word and to examine its etymology (whereby, according to my friend, "words are deduced by their origin") and orthography (which he described as, "the art or practice of spelling").

The first and fourth editions could thus be usefully compared and contrasted. Further, by judicious use of linguistic modifiers such as "and" and "or" ("Boolean operators" for so I heard them described) it was no difficult matter to peruse the entire text in a most specific and exact manner, the like of which could not be performed other than by a computing machine.

Johnson peered intently at the box and its scrolling content. I was unable to contain my mirth as, under instruction, he pecked at the computer keyboard with his huge fingers as might an angry rooster. Within minutes, however, he was able to enter words into the query box and study their definitions. This, it appears, was not so much testimony to my friend's intelligence as to the efficacy of what was called "the search software".

None the less, I could see that he was agitated. It transpired that the CD-Rom did not contain the Doctor's preface wherein he had laid out his most intimate thoughts on lexicography. He was not much pleased but was somewhat soothed when assured that it would be included in later editions. I confess myself surprised as I knew that this preface was dear to the Doctor's heart.

Johnson professed himself mightily pleased with the completed project and was amused to recount his own labours, over a period of eight and a half years, with a team of six amanuenses.

As we sped homeward, Johnson had fallen into an exhausted slumber. When, 40 minutes later, he awoke, I enquired "I trust you are refreshed from your sleep?" "Sleep, Sir, sleep!", the Doctor exclaimed. "No, I was contemplating the magnificence of my lexicon." He looked at me askance. "Does that surprise you, Sir?" I hesitated. "The magnificence? Why no, Sir. I must confess, however, that in all the years of our friendship never have I heard such an immodesty fall from your lips."

The Doctor laughed so heartily that I believed him to have suffered a convulsion of the lungs. "Sir, I had not thought you to be such an ignoramus, such a vain uninstructed pretender." He stood up and his robust frame filled the carriage. "I fear that you have entirely misconstrued my sentiment. Imagine yourself, in these times, to be a young student of literature. Consider of what use this lexicon would be. I might make so bold, Sir, as to attest that it is the very prejudices and ignorances of this book which do so embellish it. For is it not a veritable "window" upon the vanities, foibles and misjudgements of our age? That in the whole of this dictionary I made reference to Chaucer a mere 117 times and to Dryden on 15,858 occasions, seems now to me an error so gross, an assessment so awry, as to be unpardonable. And today I have been told that Chaucer is venerated as amongst the foremost of our poets whilst poor Dryden. . ."

The Doctor paused and sat down, mopping his forehead upon which great beads of perspiration had gathered. I could not but wonder again at the acuteness of his intellect which was surpassed only by the perspicuity of his expression. "Your point, Sir, is entirely correct though I fear you are too modest. A student of literature would find your book invaluable, not only for the reasons which you so well articulate but also because therein resides scholarly affection, unsurpassed knowledge and an abiding love of our great language. Have no doubt, Sir, that were I so empowered, this CD-Rom would be in every school and college in the land and every young scholar would be compelled to study it. Your dictionary, Sir, stands as a landmark of immense historical value, eclipsing entirely those confused heaps of words without dependence and without relation which preceded it." I blushed and lowered my head.

As our carriage approached the outskirts of London Johnson leant over and, in that forceful manner to which I have long been accustomed, declared his intention to venture forth the next morning to buy a computer. "For it would appear, Sir, that I have a 'home page' on the World Wide Web and that my fame is spread throughout civilisation."

He pulled a grubby sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it to me. Written thereon was a series of letters, http:www.english.upenn. edujlynchJohnson which comprised, I must assume, a form of modern code.

Eventually we alighted from the carriage into the fetid grimy streets of the capital and from thence made our way to the Doctor's lodgings at Gough Square. Not a mile from his abode Johnson paused before our favourite hostelry, wheron he remarked, "You know, Sir, this new fangled computer science is a splendid thing, but there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn. And it is, Sir, I believe, your round."

The Dr Johnson World Wide Web address is: http:www.english. jlynchJohnson

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