Thursday, March 31, 2005

Stand up the real Language Legend

Nah, nothing to do with me. Actually, the real Language Legend can't stand up because he's been dead several centuries but you wouldn't know that from this week's papers which are busy paying tribute to Dr Samuel Johnson. Who? Why?

Dr Samuel Johnson is the founding father of English lexicography (dictionary writing). Nine years in the making - er, only six years past the deadline (beat that!) - his dictionary was finally published on April 15th 1755. It's the 250th anniversary of this momentous occasion that has got the scribblers and the coin-stampers so hard at work now.

Johnson's dictionary was not the first, but it was equally the product of 18th century discourse about language. Like many, he started with the optimistic desire to 'fix' the language, so that a definitive 'proper' English could be shared and understood by members of the literate middle class, and anyone else aspiring to such dizzy social heights. He soon realised the impossibility of this position due to the ever-changing nature of language, and is famously quoted as saying "to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride".

Two things marked Johnson's dictionary out, making him a hot celebrity in town at the time, and a man and a work still celebrated today. Firstly, although other dictionaries had been produced, nothing on this scale had ever been seen before. It weighed 20lb - or about 40 kilos - and included 42,773 entries. It was also the first to use historical principles, citing real examples of the words from texts published in the past, and using these as the evidence from which to derive meanings. When, in the 19th century, the Oxford English Dictionary took on the mammoth task of producing the most comprehensive English dictionary ever, it was Johnson's lexicographical method and ambition that they adopted. It is still the underlying principle of the OED today. And he did it pretty much all by himself...

The links below will fill you in on more of the details.
  • These A-Zs are fairly lightweight commemorative markers, but of some interest nonetheless.

BBC: The A-Z of Samuel Johnson

Indy: The A-Z of Dr Johnson's Dictionary

  • You can read Johnson's preface here to see what he thought of it, and practise your language change analysis.

Johnson's Preface to the Dictionary, 1755

  • This Times review of a new biography of Johnson is very useful, particularly as it draws attention to the important fact that dictionaries are not neutral, but are as much based on the attitudes and assumptions of their writers as any other text. Think about this...

Times Review: Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings

  • And finally, look out for the new Johnson's dictionary 50p pieces - they've got Johnson's entries for 'fifty' and 'pence' on them!


At 3:41 pm, Blogger fricative said...

20lbs = 10kilos (not 40 kilos!)

At 5:14 am, Anonymous cv writing service said...

When I am schooling, our teacher would require us to bring a pocket dictionary and I'll bring with me Oxford English dictionary. I never though that Johnson's dictionary exists before that, it's really impressive. Johnson's dictionary must be of a reliable good sources of language when it comes in writing an essay.


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