Sunday, October 08, 2006


Hitchings on Johnson's Dictionary

I just finished reading Henry Hitchings, Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), aka Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World. What follows is a series of notes to myself.

Johnson was literally a tree-hugger. What is the source of this anecdote (p. 60)?
Besides, there were more immediately analgesic rewards to be had from visiting the Strahans' home. In the courtyard stood a lime tree which Johnson, in moments of abstraction, liked to hug.
Quotation from Samuel Richardson (p. 105, from Clarissa):
A man who is gross in a woman's company, ought to be knocked down with a club.
Quotation from John Dryden (p. 112, from what work?):
This melancholy flatters, but unmans you;
What is it else but penury of soul,
A lazy frost, a numbness of the mind?
See also p. 166 on the 18th century use of opium to remove melancholy.

Quotation from Johnson (p. 117, from Rambler 173, Nov. 12, 1751):
As any action or posture long continued, will distort and disfigure the limbs; so the mind likewise is crippled and contracted by perpetual application of the same set of ideas.
Quotation from Milton (p. 134, from Of Education):
Though a linguist should pride himself to have all the tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet if he had not studied the solid things in them as well as the words and lexicons, yet he were nothing so much to be esteemed a learned man.
Obscenities included in Johnson's dictionary (p. 139): arse, bum, fart, piss.

Word seeksorrow (p. 140), defined by Johnson as "One who contrives to give himself vexation." Cf. Heautontimoroumenos.

Good prayer by Johnson (p. 161):
'O God who hast hitherto supported me,' he could write in his diary, 'enable me to proceed in this labour & in the Whole task of my present state', so that 'when I shall render up at the last day an account of the talent committed to me I may receive pardon for the sake of Jesus Christ.'
Word whitewash (p. 163), defined by Johnson as "A wash to make the skin seem fair," with a quotation from Addison: "The clergy, during Cromwell's usurpation, were very much taken up in reforming the female world; I have heard a whole sermon against a whitewash." Cf. post on white lead.

On umbrellas (pp. 163-164):
He even has an entry for 'umbrella', which is a 'skreen [sic] used in hot countries to keep off the sun, and in others to bear off the rain'. He doesn't seem too sure of the spelling of the word: he offers 'umbrel' and, in his definition of 'parasol', the sadly unadopted 'umbrello'. Umbrellas were certainly something new. They are mentioned by Dryden, Swift and Defoe (as well as his spats, Robinson Crusoe has an umbrella made of goatskin), and are recognized in more than one dictionary before Johnson's, but they were rarely used as a form of protection against British rain until the late eighteenth century. The powerful philanthropist Jonas Hanway was supposedly the first Londoner to carry one for such a purpose, in the early 1750s, and he was ridiculed for doing so.
Pp. 170-171:
Voguish philosophies did little for Johnson. He saw his contemporaries 'dazzled in a bazaar of facile systems' which promised to resolve their problems. In his view, however, experience was a far more reliable guide than the tenets of artificial theories. In one of the earliest instalments of the Rambler he observed how many people's minds were 'not fixed by principles' and were therefore susceptible to 'the current of fancy', 'to every false suggestion and partial account'. The Dictionary manifests his resistance to such newfangledness. Indeed, as a lasting, exemplary resource, it marks the eddies of fashionable thought, but evinces Johnson's belief that popular theories could debilitate or deprave moral standards, and that religious values were far more durable than the shiny bric-a-brac of topicality.
On the missionary position (p. 175):
Together with Sir Hans Sloane, the president of the College of Physicians, Stukeley had in 1720 dissected the genitalia of a female elephant that had been brought back from Sumatra (and had died as a result of being given a great deal of ale). He concluded from his observations that elephants had recumbent sex. But he was wrong, and Johnson perpetuates his error.
Word potvaliant (p. 195), defined by Johnson as "Heated with courage by strong drink." Cf. post on Some Effects of Wine, #4 (Wine drives out fear and instills courage).

Word goldfinder (p. 196), defined by Johnson as "One who finds gold. A term ludicrously applied to those that empty jakes."

P. 197:
Readers are encouraged to believe that millipedes swallowed whole are a convenient laxative.
Johnson's pocket watch (p. 224) was inscribed with the Greek ἔρχεται νύξ ("the night cometh"), from John 9.4: "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work." What is the source of this information? Does the watch survive?

Word urinator (p. 256), defined by Johnson as "A diver; one who searches under water."

Criticisms of Johnson's dictionary in John Horne Tooke's Diversions of Purley (p. 240) and Archibald Campbell's Lexiphanes (p. 241). From the latter:
In the first Edition of this work, I had used the phrase between you and I, which tho' it must be confessed to be ungrammatical, is yet almost universally used in familiar conversation, and sometimes by our best comick writers: see Wycherley's Plain Dealer. This very trivial slip, if it be one, has not escaped the diligence and sagacity of the learned and candid Reviewers.
Between you and I can also be found in Shakespeare and Dickens, but it is nevertheless a solecism.

Word depeditation invented by Johnson during tour of Hebrides (p. 242).

The Johnson Dictionary Project is useful.

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