Defining Moment

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary.


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Samuel Johnson is a god now. That’s a fitting accomplishment for a man celebrating his 300th this September. It is ironic, though. Johnson was big in every way. He had a penchant for looming. His shadow left most of his contemporaries with little access to the sun. But he was human. His bigness was terrestrial, not divine. He loudly and with gusto proclaimed the vices and virtues of humankind, of which the former generally outnumbered the latter. He always kept in mind that what we see, we see through a glass, darkly.

The contrast between the finitude of the man and the infinitude of his reputation is preserved in his longest-lasting and most peculiar work, the Dictionary. Dictionaries were relatively new inventions in Johnson’s time. They were the necessary product of an increasingly literate society with ever more access to books. The slow deluge unleashed by Gutenberg 300 years earlier was gathering its force. The chaos demanded ordering. Johnson was just large enough to try, to rein in the entire language and subject it to rule. He worried that, “the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected, suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance, resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion, and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation.”

It is with some wonder, then, that we open Johnson’s Dictionary to find a barrage of exuberance and caprice. We are used to the dry and objective language of the modern dictionary. We get no such thing from Dr. Johnson. Here, for instance, is the Merriam-Webster online dictionary’s entry for “butterfly.”

any of numerous slender-bodied diurnal lepidopteran insects including one superfamily (Papilionoidea) with broad often brightly colored wings and usually another superfamily comprising the skippers

Here is Johnson’s entry:

A beautiful insect, so named because it first appears at the beginning of the season for butter.

Or this entry on “lunch” from Merriam-Webster:

a usually light meal; especially: one taken in the middle of the day

versus Johnson’s entry:

As much food as one’s hand can hold.

The obvious difference being that Johnson makes judgments (calling the butterfly “beautiful”) and/or (as in the lunch example) is happy to let his own personal wit shine through the definition. Partly, of course, this freedom comes of a wide-open field. Johnson is making up the rules of what a dictionary should do more than following anything pre-established. By setting out to codify the English language, Johnson ends up with a document bursting through with opinion and whimsy at every turn.

The tension between objectivity and subjectivity in Johnson’s Dictionary points directly to the dilemma at the heart of any dictionary. At the core lurks a simple question: Is the dictionary meant to describe or to prescribe? Does the dictionary show us language as it is, or guide us toward language as it ought to be? Agonistes throw themselves into battle on both sides of that divide.

Johnson, wiser than most, knew the answer. We have no idea. Language wants rules. Meaning requires that words have definitions and that sentences have syntax. But to penetrate to the very heart of definition or syntax is to see it slip away. Essential elements, they are nevertheless shot through with obscurity and malleability. Here’s how Dr. Johnson put it in the Preface to his Dictionary:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

Amusingly, several centuries later those words ring true as ever. The one thing that stays the same is how unpredictably we change. • 28 September 2009