April 15, 2006

The Tory lexicographer

On April 15, 1755 the following advertisement appeared in the London press:

“A Dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by the best writers. To which are prefixed a History of the Language and a Grammar. By Samuel Johnson A.M.”

Dr Johnson’s great dictionary was published and the best known definition of a lexicographer “a harmless drudge” was first presented to the public.

In his entertaining history of “Dictionary-makers and the dictionaries they made”, entitled Chasing the Sun, Jonathon Green charts the various attempts to imitate the Italians and the French by creating either an English Academy to codify the language or writing a Dictionary for the same purpose; possibly both.

Dr Johnson, too, saw his magisterial work that he had begun in 1745, as a patriotic exercise, writing in the Preface:

“I have devoted this book, the labour of my years, to the honour of my country, that we may no longer yield the palm of philology to the nations of the continent.”

As Mr Green points out, Dr Johnson and his Dictionary were highly regarded by such writers as Voltaire; the high regard was not reciprocated on this side of the Channel.

Johnson had, as he explained, intended to “fix” the language, to offer precise definitions, rules and etymologies. While he succeeded in creating the schema of a dictionary, he realized that a language, particularly the English language cannot be “fixed” or defined for any length of time – it is too fluid, too flexible.

Besides, he felt that trying to “fix” the language actually went against the English concepts of freedom.

On the other hand, he did use the Dictionary, as he used the essays in the contemporaneous Rambler to advance his own High Tory, High Church, moral view of the world through his definitions and quotations (often re-written to suit himself).

The Dictionary was praised by many, particularly David Garrick in verse, assessed soberly by Adam Smith and attacked by prominent Whigs for being Tory. This may have had something to do with Johnson’s definition of a Tory as

“one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England”.

The Whigs, on the other hand, were defined as a “faction”.

Garrick’s rollicking verse displayed the patriotic aspect of the whole enterprise and the Dictionary’s reception:

“Talk of war with a Briton, he’ll boldly advance, That one English soldier will beat ten of France; Would we alter the boast from the sword to the pen, Our odds are still greater, still greater our men … First Shakespeare and Milton, like gods in the fight, Have put their whole drama and epick to flight … And Johnson, well arm’d like a hero of yore, Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more!”

The forty French refers, naturally, to the French academicians who have been codifying the French language with variable success since the days of Cardinal Richelieu. (The Académie was founded in 1535)

The poetic critique was published in the Public Advertiser and the Gentleman’s Magazine. Can any modern reviewer rival that?

Cross-posted from Conservative History Journal

Posted by Helen Szamuely at April 15, 2006 03:24 PM

For all Johnson's teasing of the Scots - the most famous being his defining oats as "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people" - it was his dictionary which first exposed English readers to many Scottish writers. He quoted them freely in his usage examples, and conferred upon them some of the respectability as thinkers they had been deserving for decades.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at April 15, 2006 04:02 PM

Very nice sentimental thoughts about freedom but it's realy too bad that Dr Johnson nor any other important lexiographer could impose spelling reforms. My ESL students are driven to frustration with English spelling/pronunciation. When I was in elementary school I had immense difficulties with spelling. I still do but it's not as bad as back then.

I point out that English as one of the highest rates of dyslexia among young students. The late Peter Gzwoski- the famous CBC raido host- in a TV commercial claimed that 25% of school age children have difficulty reading. I find the figure a tad exaggerated but agree.

as I pointed out in a comment some time ago, I'm always struck that Anglophones hold spelling bees while the Romance language students write dictées

So I've always approved of language academies.

Posted by: xavier at April 15, 2006 04:19 PM

Many of Johnson's friends and colleagues were Scots. Boswell is the most notable, of course. Interestingly, almost all his assistants on the Dictionary were also Scots. There is a certain amount of showing off in the man's anti-Scottishness. But that definition of the oats is quite funny.

About the spelling: I do sympathize, as someone who had to learn English as a foreign language in the first place. On the other hand, that means that I cannot understand why people can't just learn that spelling.

In fact, when I first went to school in England we had dictations. It was part of the English Language O level. Since then our education system has been ruined; there are no dictations and no spelling bees either. And very many children have difficulties with reading, which did not happen back in the days the little blighters were taught to do so. The rather grim joke in England is that middle class children are dyslexic and working class children are thick. Not that dyslexia is not real but all too often other problems, for instance, lack of good teaching is blamed on it.

Posted by: Helen at April 15, 2006 05:21 PM

I read last week that the English language is by far the fastest growing, now nearing one million words. Though the average educated person knows only between 24,000 and 30,000 of them.

Posted by: Michael J. Smith at April 16, 2006 09:50 PM

It depends on how you count them, of course. Are rule, rules, and ruler separate words, or different forms of the same word?

That said, English is by far the largest language. Not all cultures like borrowing, and not all cultures approve of invented words. We value both.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at April 17, 2006 08:17 PM

Um ... What happened to Jim, Verity, and everyone? I'm going through withdrawal here, folks.

Posted by: Anton Traversa at April 21, 2006 11:56 AM
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