February 03, 2014

Samuel Johnson House: there's a word for it.



David Ellis


WHEN he wrote his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language back in the mid-18th century, lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson and seven assistants took eight years to complete the job – in today's terms a seemingly inordinately long time.


But across the English Channel, a French publishing house had 40 academics spend nearly four decades producing their first major dictionary, while in Italy another publisher took 30 years to get theirs done and into print.


The Johnson dictionary was by no means England's first, with the "Wordbook" having been published in 1538, and a dozen or so others in the years before Johnson's. But his was the most-commonly referred to – and most trusted – until the Oxford English Dictionary came along 150 years later.


And today, visitors to London can drop into the house just off London's famed Fleet Street, and see for themselves the garret Johnson and his team toiled away in for those eight laborious years. When finally completed in April 1755, A Dictionary of the English Language comprised two-volumes containing 43,000 entries, with 100,000 definitions of word meanings attributed to hundreds of earlier writers Dr Johnson referred to and quoted.


One apparently simple word could attract vast explanations in his dictionary. 'Put,' for instance, was given an extraordinary 100+ meanings, taking-up five pages.


And so large and cumbersome were the initial two volumes that they were later broken down into four – that when stacked one on top of the other, stood well over 25cm (nearly a foot) thick, and as the pages were 46cm X 50cm in size, their combined weight was 9.5kg (21 pounds.)


Samuel Johnson was an extraordinarily colourful and charismatic person, with an exceptionally brilliant mind. He was a teacher, journalist, essayist, poet, literary critic, biographer and book editor, yet almost all his life lived near-penniless.


His teaching career had ended while still quite young, students complaining of his "unusual" behaviour, which included appearing clumsy through being both partially blind and deaf, and also suffering involuntary head-shaking, gesticulating, grunting, emitting half-whistles and making sudden "clucking" sounds with his tongue.


It was only well-after his death that doctors started to record a condition that was to become known as Tourette Syndrome – Samuel Johnson's now-obvious problem.


Yet despite his ailment, Dr Johnson has been described as "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history," and "the second-most quoted English writer after William Shakespeare," although he was not without detractors in high places. One stated publicly that his dictionary was "imperfect and faulty," another that it was "grammatically and historically contemptible" and a third that "nearly one-third is as much a language of the Hottentots as it is of the English…"


But conversely, when two society ladies complimented him on having left vulgar words out of his dictionary, the ever-witty Dr Johnson feigned surprise, gasping: "What, my dears – you have been looking for them, have you?"


The tens of thousands who today visit the home where he wrote his dictionary, obviously have more admiration than Johnson's critics. Found at number 17 on the small pedestrian-only Gough Square off Fleet Street, the circa-1700 building is "4 bay windows wide and 5 storeys high" (as chronicled when Johnson lived there,) and is as sparsely furnished today as in his struggling times.


In fact the only times he had money of any significance was when writing spasmodically for the Gentleman's Magazine, fascinatingly described as "a repository of all things worth mentioning… a digest of news and commentary on anything from market prices to Latin poetry, divinity, philosophy and morality… fact or fantasy" and which was published for over 190 years from 1731 to 1922.


And again when he was paid 1500 English Guineas in instalments (around AU$250,000 today) by a group of London booksellers to write his dictionary.


And how words have changed: Dr Johnson's dictionary had cruise defined as a small cup, fireman a man of violent passions, fake a coil of rope, and urinator as a diver who searches under the sea.


Equally words that have gone out of use included bedpresser that Dr Johnson defined as a heavy and lazy fellow, fopdoodle as a fool, odontalgick a toothache, and an amatorrulist as an insignificant little lover…


Dr Johnson's House is open Monday to Saturday 11am to 5pm; details www.drjohnsonshouse.org






[] DR SAMUEL Johnson by 18th century painter Joshua Reynolds, depicting how Johnson was partially blind. (Academy of Arts)

[] THE home in which Dr Johnson and his team wrote A Dictionary of the English Language over eight years; it is now a museum. (British Tourist Authority)

[] PART of the interior of Samuel Johnson's home, as austere today as it was in his time. (British Tourist Authority)

[] EARLY two-volumes of the famed dictionary. (Kreutz Rare Books)

[] TYPICAL page entry showing Johnson's quaint interpretation for Oats… and how he attributed word meanings to others. (Kreutz Rare Books)


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