LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story Of The Book That Defined The World

by Henry Hitchings.

This is a story of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary – the first comprehensive dictionary of English, which was published in 1755.

We start with a brief history of Johnson’s early life: his very modest upbringing in Litchfield; his education – and his obsessive reading habits; and his subsequent move to London where he worked as a jobbing writer. We hear about the Dictionary’s beginnings too, about the London booksellers who commissioned Johnson to write it, his reluctance to take it on, and the failed patronage of the Earl of Chesterfield. Then finally, work on the Dictionary begins, and we learn about the house in Gough Square where Johnson lived and worked and the team of amanuenses he gathered to help him.

With each Chapter titled with a headword from the DictionaryHitchings inevitably introduces us to a wealth of Johnson’s definitions, some pithy (“patron, …commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid in flattery”), some sad (“melancholy, …a kind of madness, in which the mind is always fixed on one object”), some wrong (“pastern, the knee of a horse”), some that hint at the effort taken to dedicate eight years of his life to this work (e.g. “lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge”), and many others, almost all providing an insight into the thinking of the man himself. Hitchings also reveals some gems still extant in our modern-day dictionaries (“éclair, a cake, long in shape but short in duration”, Chambers, 13th Ed.), and litters his own text with words I had to look up (e.g. “rebarbative” meaning “repellent”), which would have annoyed me in any other book.

Dr Johnson’s Dictionary is obviously well-researched. It’s also well written – although heavy going in places – and I recommend it for any lover of English.


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