Bran Flakes and Harmless Drudges: Dr. Johnson and his Dictionary

Books and Culture (January 1, 2006)


In 1952 Maria Moliner seems to have grown bored. She and her husband had moved to Madrid some years before, from Valencia, to educate their children. But the children were mostly grown now, Maria's husband was often away, and her work as a librarian provided little stimulation. Moliner (born in 1900) had been one of the few Spanish women of her time to take a university degree, in history, and though it was an honors degree an academic position was unthinkable: even as a librarian she suffered from suspicion, prejudice, and a dearth of intellectual challenges. So she passed the time by returning to her deepest intellectual love, linguistics and lexicography. She decided that she would produce, all by herself, a dictionary: a complete dictionary of the Spanish language as it was actually used.

To some degree this task constituted a protest — a protest against the work of the official guardians of the Spanish language, the Real Academia Español. These days the RAE's chief production is simply called the Diccionario de la lengua espanola, but at the founding of the august body, in 1713, its members worked on what they came to call the Diccionario de autoridades: the Authorities' Dictionary. The task of these Authorities was to preserve good Castilian Spanish, to purge it of impurities and unnecessary accretions, and to send it along to the next generation in a pristine state. But, Maria Moliner wondered, what about preserving a record of Spanish as it was actually used? It was not a Diccionario de Autoridades she wished to produce but rather a Diccionario del uso del español — so she titled her project.

She expected the work would take her two years. Instead it took fifteen, and it's a miracle that it didn't take far longer than that, especially when you consider that the Authorities of the first Academia labored over their project for fourteen. But in 1966 and 1967, the two volumes of Maria Moliner's Diccionario del uso del español appeared, weighing about seven pounds and comprising more than three thousand pages. The Colombian novelist Gabriel García Marquez, writing in 1982, gleefully noted that Moliner's dictionary was more than twice the size of the RAE's, which he thought appropriate, since in his judgment it was "more than twice as good."


Two hundred and six years before Maria Moliner thought to assuage her ennui by dictionary-making, Samuel Johnson, a rather obscure and not especially successful writer, was approached in his London rooms by a publisher named Robert Dodsley. Dodsley wanted Johnson to make a dictionary of the English language. Many years later Johnson would tell his friend James Boswell that he "had long thought" of such a task before Dodsley approached him. This is probably true. But then, Johnson thought of many tasks, and even took detailed notes about them in his journals; he never lacked for ideas. Summoning the resolve and discipline to carry them out was his problem. For decades he chastised himself for "Idleness" and prayed that God would grant him the power overcome it. Yet he also, famously, affirmed that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." (Maria Moliner would have been incomprehensible to him.) Fortunately for Johnson and the English language, Dodsley offered money.

Robert Dodsley, like many British intellectuals of his time, worried that English, that great and noble language, lacked — well, lacked something like an Authorities' Dictionary. In the matter of national lexicographical discipline, the English were running well behind their Continental neighbors. The Real Academia Español was itself a relative latecomer to the dictionary-making, language-fixing game, having been preceded by the Académie francais (founded by the great Cardinal Richelieu in 1635) and the oddly named Accademia della Crusca (originating in Florence way back in 1582). In Italian "crusca" means bran: these Florentine scholars called themselves la Crusconi — the bran flakes — in reference to their task of separating the linguistic wheat from the chaff, which is what all such acadamies seem to want to do.

But in England no such body had ever managed to generate itself, though the Royal Society — that great scientific organization, founded in 1660, whose early members included Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and John Locke — had set as one of its earliest tasks the formation of "a committee for improving the language." One member of that committee was the reigning Poet Laureate of England, John Dryden, and it is interesting to note that one of his chief concerns was a tendency to "corrupt our English Idiom by mixing it too much with French." (This mirrors today's obsession, in the Académie francais, with the elimination of "Franglais," that is, the appropriation of English words by French speakers. In this matter I sympathize with the Académie, since the widespread use of terms like "le parking" and "le weekend" threatens to make the entire nation sound like Pépe le Pew.)

The Royal Society's committee soon disbanded, however, without producing anything, and for the next fifty years or more some of the major English writers would lament the absence of a true British "Academy" to prevent, or at least control, linguistic abuse. For Daniel Defoe, the chief pestilence was lewd, rude slang — "Vomit of the Brain," he called it; for Jonathan Swift it was the fashionable cant of "illiterate Court Fops, half-witted Poets, and University Boys." In the face of such abuses, Swift thought, the only remedy was to discover "some method … for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever." This is a recurrent theme among linguistic academicians and their allies: a deep conviction that the dominant usage of their own time — or, more precisely, the usage into which they were educated, the usage of their youth and young adulthood — is a pure or ideal form of the language, any deviation from which marks a decline.

But no British Academy was formed, and though dictionaries of one kind of another had been produced in England almost since the invention of the printing press, by the time Dodsley came to Johnson, it seemed clear that none of them met the perceived need. This was largely because such dictionaries tended to focus on specialized topics, or were simple lists of words to facilitate more regularity of spelling, or were explanations of particularly difficult words only. (Thus William Tyndale once hoped to add a glossary of unusual words to his translation of the New Testament, though he did not live long enough to do so.) As Henry Hitchings points out, "in the very year that Johnson began his task, [the bishop and literary scholar] William Warburton was still mournfully reflecting … , 'We have neither Grammar nor Dictionary, neither Chart nor Compass, to guide us through this wide sea of words.' "

A good bit of the history I have just recounted is found in Hitchings' new book, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World. It's a delightful and informative book, despite its subtitle. (Hyperbolic and extended subtitles are all the rage in publishing these days: see also Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, or Thomas Cahill's The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. It's a trend that can't end too soon.) Hitching describes the making of Johnson's dictionary, examines its character, and charts its future influence, all with real skill.

For Johnson indeed accepted Dodsley's commission — primarily for the money, of course, though no doubt the honor he could bring his country and its language was an additional incentive. Johnsonians have long debated whether Johnson ever meant for his dictionary to be a truly prescriptive one; but at the outset of his task, in 1747, he wrote a lengthy "Plan" for his dictionary which he addressed to the Earl of Chesterfield, whose patronage he hoped to secure, and early in his account he says quite clearly that the goal of his dictionary is "to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom." Moreover, he returns to this claim as he concludes his Plan: "This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary, a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened."

No Academy could have put it better. Yet elsewhere in the Plan, Johnson confesses to some nervousness about being put in such a position of determinative authority, and in effect says that he wouldn't even attempt it if the earl did not so desire. For the earl — this much is crystal-clear — would never have supported Johnson's work if he had not thought that it would rout bad usage and enthrone excellence of style and diction. He said as much in several essays that he wrote while Johnson was at work.

Despite Chesterfield's insistence, during his labors on the dictionary Johnson became more and more uneasy about its usefulness as a prescriptive bludgeon. His principles on this matter may have evolved; or he may have been simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task he was facing. He had hired, near the beginning, six assistants, whose primary task was to organize the great piles of lexicographical material that Johnson amassed in his daily reading. For this was Johnson's chief work: to read. Though he was already known (by those who knew him at all) as a vastly learned man, he read hundreds and hundreds of books during the dictionary-making years — sending the assistants out to buy or borrow more whenever his stock ran low — and made notes on every usage that seemed to him unusual or illustrative, or for that matter morally compelling. Johnson thought that good linguistic usage also comprised sage counsel, and wanted his dictionary to be a repository of wisdom as well as literary skill. He wanted the quotations he selected to be useful not simply for "conveying some elegance of language," but also, at least in many instances, for offering "some precept of prudence or piety." Few other than Johnson would ever have imagined dictionary-reading as a school for virtue.

Johnson's decision to employ quotations from skilled and wise writers in most of his definitions was perhaps his most fateful one. It certainly committed him irrevocably to one of the world's great reading projects; and it would set an example to be followed most famously by the Oxford English Dictionary. Moreover, it's almost certain that the breadth of his reading contributed to his increasing discomfort with prescription. By the time he wrote his great and justly famous Preface to the completed work, he was ready to state straightforwardly that his goal was not to "form" but to "register" the language. Surely this change of purpose had something to do with the vast diversity of use and meaning that he discovered in his reading. To take but one example, Johnson discerns 65 distinct meanings of the verb "to fall," sixty-three of which he illustrates with quotations. No wonder he would later admit that many of his early ideas were "the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer."

And no wonder he almost quit the task a dozen times in frustration or exhaustion or both. The booksellers who sponsored the project wanted Johnson to work more quickly, and were reluctant to advance him the money he needed to pay his assistants; the assistants themselves tended to be incompetent or dishonest or both. "I do not know how to manage," he wrote, plaintively, to one of the more sympathetic booksellers. The misery of those years find their way into the closing words of his Preface:

Though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the authour, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow: … I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.

Indeed he had suffered much in those years, from the failure of his tragedy Irene and the death of his wife Hetty as well as from stress and poverty and his habitually deep depressions, which were exacerbated by all of the above. It is rather odd to hear such a lament expressed so forthrightly in the preface to a dictionary, of all things; but such openness is characteristic of Johnson, who was anything but the Olympian figure often evoked by his honorific titles ("Doctor Johnson," "Great Cham of Literature") and perhaps also by the stateliness of his prose. His own suffering always served to make him more attentive to the suffering of others; thus the constant parade of dirty, needy people into his household, his patience and care for whom annoyed his more scrupulous friends. His sympathies were engaged in the same way and to the same degree by language: in the great edition of Shakespeare that he prepared some years after completing the Dictionary, he wrote, "I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor." No one has ever been more sensitive the manifold powers of words than Johnson, and though this is not commonly regarded as a qualification for lexicographical work, that may be unfortunate.

Johnson's uniquely strong personality — "no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson," a friend said upon his death — finds its way into the very sinews of the Dictionary itself. As Hitchings rightly notes, and as Paul Fussell noted before him, Johnson quite self-consciously affirmed that he was "writing" rather than merely "compiling" a dictionary, working with the same intensity of feeling and vision that went into his poems and essays. His personality is woven into the texture of the book, in ways both trivial and deeply serious. The wry definition of "lexicographer" — "a harmless drudge" — is a famous example, as is his definition of "oats": "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." (This is almost universally thought to indicate Johnson's contempt for the Scots, and it is true that he held no high opinion of them; but Johnson felt deeply for all in poverty, and it has always seemed to me that the definition arose from pity rather than scorn.) He could be politically opinionated, defining "excise" as "a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid"; he could be literarily opinionated, defining "sonnet" as "a short poem consisting of fourteen lines … not very suitable to the English language"; and sometimes he could be just plain exasperated: "to worm" is "to deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad."

In addition to telling us much about Johnson's procedures and practices in the making of the dictionary, Hitchings also gives us a reliable and entertaining guide to its reception. At first there was considerable doubt about the project; Sir Horace Walpole, convinced that no dictionary produced by a single person could ever be successful, wrote, "I cannot imagine that Dr. Johnson's reputation will be very lasting"; and the dictionary, and Johnson himself, suffered violent attack in the book Lexiphanes, written by one Archibald "Horrible" Campbell, whom Hitchings describes as "a ship's purser of apparently fabulous ugliness." Johnson's use of contemporary quotations, even from periodicals, aroused the strong disapproval of the more particular. (Curiously, this scene would be repeated 130 years later, when Benjamin Jowett — the Master of Balliol College, a dominant figure of late-Victorian Oxford, and the head of a university committee overseeing the ongoing work of the OED — forbade the editor, James Murray, from using newspaper quotations to illustrate meanings. Murray protested heatedly against such interference and in the end won his independence: the newspaper citations stayed.) But the Dictionary received, surprisingly, an early commendation from the Crusconi of Florence — that is, the Accademia della Crusca — and grew in stature as the years went by. One can get a sense of just how dominant a cultural force it became by reading the first chapter of Thackeray's Vanity Fair: "the Lexicographer's name was always on the lips" of Miss Pinkerton, headmistress of a girl's school, and his Dictionary is described as "the interesting work which she invariably presented to her scholars, on their departure" from her institution. When Becky Sharp receives hers — at the moment she is leaving — she immediately flings it through the window of her coach.

But some years later the makers of the OED, differing strongly from Becky on this point as on most others, used 1,700 of Johnson's definitions with little or no change. And at the outset of our new millennium, seventeen members of the U. S. Congress brought a lawsuit against then-President Clinton for his failing to obtain from Congress a declaration of war before ordering airstrikes against Slobodan Milosovic's Yugoslavia. After all, does not the Constitution specifically grant to Congress the power to declare war? But that simply raised the question of what the word "war" means — and in order to find out what it might have meant to the authors of the Constitution, the District of Columbia's U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, before which the case was argued, saw fit to consult what would have been the lexicographical authority of their time: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. What they discovered is written into the court records: "War may be defined [as] the exercise of violence under sovereign command against withstanders; force, authority and resistance being the essential parts thereof. Violence, limited by authority, is sufficiently distinguished from robbery, and like outrages; yet consisting in relation towards others, it necessarily requires a supposition of resistance, whereby the force of war becomes different from the violence inflicted upon slaves or yielding malefactors."


Twenty years before Johnson began his dictionary, a lexicographer named Benjamin Martin wrote:

The pretence of fixing a standard to the purity and perfection of any language is utterly vain and impertinent, because no language as depending on arbitrary use and custom, can ever be permanently the same, but will always be in a mutable and fluctuating state; and what is deem'd polite and elegant in one age, may be counted uncouth and barbarous in another.

These words should make the epitaph of all Academies of language, and all forms of classicism as well — meaning by classicism what C. S. Lewis calls "the curious conception of the 'classical' period on a language, the correct or normative period before which all was immature or archaic and after which all was decadent." Lewis devotes several pages of the long and magnificent introduction to his history of 16th-century English literature to a learned disembowelment of the classicist ideal. The Renaissance humanists (in Lewis' account the first classicists) "succeeded in killing the medieval Latin" in which so much great poetry and prose was written; "before they had ceased talking of a rebirth it became evident that they had really built a tomb." Once scholars "vied with one another in smelling out and condemning 'unclassical' words … the permitted language grew steadily poorer" and ultimately unable to represent or even grapple with the changing world of things and events. (One humanist even "bound himself by oath to abstain not only from every word but from every number and case of a word that could not be found in Cicero.") Lewis is right to say that the great flowering of English literature at the end of the 16th century — Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne — is something the classicists would have prevented if they had had the power.

This is not to say that there are no excellences or barbarities in language. There are both, as Lewis well knew. But this grasping at past excellences as a means of preventing future barbarities is a mug's game. To steal a line from William F. Buckley, Jr., there are certainly times to stand athwart history yelling Stop, but not in the linguistic arena; yelling there is "utterly vain and impertinent." In some periods linguistic change will accelerate, often because the world to which language must respond is itself changing, and while such cultural instability can be disorienting, it is also often the source of great linguistic creativity. Some linguistic horrors were perpetrated in the heterogeneous and unstable world of Shakespeare — but then Shakespeare too was perpetrated then. There is much to be said for the view of Noah Webster, the great American successor to Johnson: Webster certainly believed in preserving the purity of the English language — indeed he felt that in England the language had by his time become far more degraded than in North America — but he also believed that one of the key responsibilities of the lexicographer was to record and enshrine valuable new usage.

This could be called an American view, I suppose, engaging as it does a confidence in linguistic progress, albeit with a recognition of real degradation and loss; but then Johnson's employment of contemporary quotations suggests that he too believed that new uses of old words could be worthy of commendation. This hopefulness about linguistic change seems to me not so much American as un-Academic: Academies seem, in general, to be far less open to the new than individual lexicographers. In the stories we have explored here, from the original Crusconi to today's Academie français, from Samuel Johnson to Maria Moliner, one can trace the Cartesian coordinates of lexicography: on the X axis, the distinction between individual and collective works; on the Y axis, the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive works. And when one does that, one can see that it is usual for there to be a strong correlation between the collectively produced dictionaries and a tendency to prescribe. Through most of the history of dictionary-making it has been thought that dictionaries are supposed to prescribe — that is, teach people how to use the language properly — so it would be surprising if even the lone pilots of lexicography didn't have a tendency to the pedagogical. But, to judge from the examples of Johnson, Webster, and Moliner, they tend to be uneasy about such pedagogy, or flexible about the lessons to be learned, or even dismissive of the whole idea.

Looking at these coordinates, it's also easy to discern on our chart one great outlier: the Oxford English Dictionary, or, as it was originally called, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. For this very reason, surely, it is the greatest of all dictionaries: the product not of a committee of distinguished academics but rather a shockingly motley collection of word nerds and amateur pedants, it prescribes nothing, instead preferring to provide the most exhaustive (but necessarily imperfect and incomplete) accounting possible of the full range of English usage. The OED is the world's largest linguistic rummage sale; it would not inspire the devotion it does were it not so vast and simultaneously so ragtag. Some years ago the physician and writer Oliver Sacks bought a photocopier for the sole purpose of copying pages from the bulky OED to read in bed; this story alone has reconciled me to the invention of that otherwise loathsome machine. For the OED is the most complete representation yet devised of language itself.

Even the most prescriptive dictionary, even the strictest Academy, has a different effect than it intends: the sweeping prohibition of a particular word or usage merely reminds the reader of options and alternatives, perhaps previously unsuspected ones. ("This is marvelous," the novelist Stendhal is reported to have said when he tasted ice cream for the first time; "what a pity it isn't forbidden." As with ice cream, so with language.) However, the exhibition of sheer potential embodied in every dictionary only happens, it seems to me, when the dictionary actually has a body. Surely every user of dictionaries or encyclopedias can recall many serendipitous discoveries: as we flip through pages in search of some particular chunk of information, our eyes are snagged by some oddity, some word or phrase or person or place, unlooked-for but all the more irresistible for that. On my way to "serendipity" I trip over "solleret," and discover that those weird, broad metal shoes that I've seen on the feet of armored knights have a name. But this sort of thing never happens to me when I look up a word in an online dictionary. The great blessing of Google is its uncanny skill in finding what you're looking for; the curse is that it so rarely finds any of those lovely odd things you're not looking for. For that pleasure, it seems, we need books.

This helps to explain, I think, my otherwise curious indifference to the Octavo DVD-ROM edition of Johnson's Dictionary, released in commemoration of the book's 250th anniversary. Octavo is a company that takes high-resolution photographs of rare and old books, digitizes them, and sells them on CD or DVD. Medieval illuminated manuscripts, architectural drawings from the Italian Renaissance, painstakingly rendered Victorian paintings of parrots and turtles, even Gutenberg's Bible — all these make themselves vividly present on one's computer screen. But Johnson's Dictionary just lies there, splayed like a patient etherised upon a table, or a specimen readied for dissection. It can't be browsed or thumbed, its pages can't be ruffled; you can't practice the sortes upon it, closing your eyes and stabbing a finger down on a spot to discover what lesson God or chance has left there for you. If you want to find anything the only reasonable way to do it is by typing text into a search window à la Google. I use Google as often as the next guy, and praise it more than most; but it makes me sad to see Johnson's wonderful book, made "amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow," digitized into lifelessness.

George Landow has written that "the linear habits of thought associated with print technology often force us to think in particular ways that require narrowness, decontextualization, and intellectual attenuation, if not downright impoverishment." But it turns out that, when it comes to dictionaries anyway, it's hypertext that narrows and impoverishes. The simple fact that I cannot pick up a dictionary and turn to the precise page I wish, or, even if I could do that, focus my eyes only on the one definition I was looking for — the very crudity, as it were, of the technology is what enriches me and opens my world to possibilities. Only when I hold the printed book can I be ushered into the world of sheer fascination with proliferating language that people like Maria Moliner and Samuel Johnson inhabited, and encourage us to inhabit.

Before that dark conclusion of his Preface, Johnson allows us some insight into the delight that, often at least, puncuated his "harmless drudgery." Perhaps he began his project with hopes of prescribing and regulating the language, but he soon enough learned what he was in for: "words are hourly shifting in their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water." It would be wrong to hear this as a lament; Johnson is rather confessing his awe at the ordinary vastness, the day-to-day sublimity, of the hoard of words our ancestors have gathered over the centuries of English. Looking back at his labors, before remembering the losses he incurred during them, he wrote, "I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to persue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chace the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them."