Sunday, May 16, 2010
Dr Johnson's Dictionary
Henry Hitchings’ Dr Johnson’s Dictionary I recently read Henry Hitchings’ excellent ‘Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World’, a book of whose existence I was unaware until I stumbled upon it on a library bookshelf whilst looking for some other biography. I do not wish to overstate the exhilaration of this serendipitous discovery, but I doubt that Bouchard felt a more breathless excitement or greater quickening of the heart when he first came upon the Rosetta Stone. I can assure you that from my own experiences, only my discovery an unexpected packet of M&Ms hiding behind a box of crackers in the pantry comes even close. Needless to say the aforementioned book was pounced upon with the same rapacious glee as the candy-coated chocolate treats ‘that melt in your mouth, not in your hand’. I thoroughly recommend Hitchings’ excellent book on Johnson’s Dictionary. It’s a delightful read that skilfully manages to feel like a riveting biography of both the man and his dictionary itself – two fascinating creatures worthy of everyone’s interest. Perhaps it is because our image of Johnson and his dictionary are so stamped on each other that this approach works so well. Both Johnson and his magnum opus do seem to reflect the brilliance, as well as the foibles, of each other vividly. It’s inspiring to read about how Johnson battled with the numerous struggles in his life, but it seems that it would be untrue to say he overcame all obstacles with towering success. His melancholia and financial difficulties troubled him over many years, and even after the dictionary’s completion, his life was not one of straightforward comfort, success and unanimous praise. It’s humbling, if not down right guilt-inducing, to read about how a man who was tremendously prolific in so many forms of writing and gifted with an astounding intellect reproached himself for being lazy and not producing as much he should have. If he felt bad about procrastinating, all I can say is that he should be glad that at least the internet wasn’t around in his day. Fellow word-fanciers will be happy to hear that Hitchings’ book also includes a delightful number of Johnson’s definitions as chapter headings and also woven throughout the body of the text. Many of them illustrate Johnson’s wit and talent for conjuring up vivid images such as ‘vaticide’ (a murderer of poets – presumably it was a form of homicide so widespread in 18th century that it required a specific term). There are also definitions for obscure words that are so glaringly useful that you’re amazed you have been able survive for so long without them in your vocabulary such as ‘anatiferous’ – defined simply as ‘producing ducks’. I find the word anatiferous so pleasing that I’m becoming increasingly determined to find a way to bring it into more conversations. I am, however, struggling to come up with many things that can reasonably be described as ‘producing ducks’ other than ducks. Possibly an anatiferous splash of bread as it is thrown in the water? I first learned about Johnson’s Herculean lexicographical endeavours as a child watching Blackadder’s ‘Ink and Incapability’. I loved this episode as a kid and I remember being fascinated by the idea that one person could write a dictionary on their own. Back then I rather liked collecting words and their meanings. It was always enjoyable to encounter a new word in a book and then find out what it meant. It was as though words were butterflies. If you caught one and discovered its definition then you owned the meaning of the word in your head as though you had pinned down and catalogued a perfect specimen in your butterfly collection. As I got older I came to realise that words could have many different meanings. The context of a word was important and could wildly alter the meaning of the word. The connotation of a word could be as vital to understanding how it was used as any of the meanings denoted in its dictionary definitions. Words were defined by their usage and how they had come to be used in that way as well. Some had more weight or value than others in a particular context; some were appropriate in circumstances where their synonyms would not be. It was all fascinating to me but difficult to pin down. I wasn’t just looking at butterflies now; it was trying to see the butterflies as part of a complex ecological system and at the same time understand that they had been forced to adapt over years and years of evolution. Then at university I took a course on the literary history of the English language and became infatuated with studying Middle English and Old English texts. Once I started reading about morphology, philology and semiology, and encountered keen linguists, I realised I didn’t possess even the tiniest scraping of the outer layer of everything there was to know about language. I came to understand that what I was interested in was the way words work in stories. The linguistics scholars are more like lepidopterists, studying butterflies with scientific methods and exhaustive knowledge of their subjects. I’ve merely been fascinated by the colours and patterns on the butterflies’ wings. I think maybe that’s true for many writers and their love of words. We are not so much word-lepidopterists as people who frolic in fields, chasing butterflies and trying to herd them into stories. I think that’s part of why I regard Johnson’s dictionary with more affection than many other dictionaries that are more useful in their definitions. With Johnson’s dictionary, the writer is apparent in the definitions as though you can hear him barking the word at you across the centuries. His prejudices, wit, barbs and preferences colour many of them, but at the same time that’s what makes many of his definitions so compelling to read today. Johnson defined words with their meanings and included quotes to illustrate their usage, but some of his definitions are like quotes in themselves. They don’t always feel like language used to give a simple explanation of a word’s meaning; rather they’re more like miniature stories themselves that suggest a whole different way of thinking about the word. The downside is that I suspect the dictionary would not be useful to anyone wanting to look up a word they didn’t know to discover its meaning. However when you encounter Johnson’s incredible ability of defining some words with an image that never occurred to you before but still feels inexplicably right, it can be poetic and hauntingly beautiful. One of my favourite examples of this is his definition for puppet as ‘a wooden tragedian’.