In under 300 pages, Hitchings manages to present a brief biography of Johnson and a detailed look at his Dictionary and its creation. Hitchings is an engaging writer, and he has spent enough time with the Dictionary and with Johnson that he is able to bring both the man and the book to life. Hitchings’s greatest strength, however, is his ability to understand--and balance--both what the reader needs to know to understand the topic and what he will flat-out enjoy learning, regardless of need.
For example, in explaining the many deficiencies of the several English dictionaries that preceded Johnson’s, he explains
The best work of this period was An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, compiled by Nathan Bailey, a schoolmaster from Stepney. First published in 1721, Bailey’s dictionary went through thirty editions over the next eighty-one years. It was more useful and wide-ranging than its predecessors, but its definitions were often poor: “cat” was defined as “a creature well known,” “to get” was defined simply as “to obtain,” “cool” meant “cooling or cold,” “black” was “a colour,” “strawberry” “a well-known fruit,” and “to wash” meant “to cleanse by washing,” (though “washing” was not defined).
The book is sprinkled with such examples--many from Johnson’s own definitions, for in the course of his Herculean task, he did sometimes come up short. Hitchings covers such omissions, mistakes, and useless recursions (“A ‘poet’ is in essence ‘a writer of poems’; a ‘poem’ is before all else ‘the work of a poet.’”) Most entertaining--and most interesting--for me are the words Johnson defines while admitting he is unclear or uncertain about their meanings.
Commonly judged a dictator--a colossus of authority--he is here, we can see, a more tentative creature. “To swelt” is “to puff in sweat, if that be the meaning.”. . . “To clink,” he informs us, “seems in Spenser to have some unusual sense”; we are provided with the relevant passage so we can work it out for ourselves. Having included the unusual word “urim,” which occurs in Book VI of Paradise Lost, he defers to the authority of Milton’s editor Thomas Newton: “Urim and thummim were something in Aaron’s breastplate; but what, critics and commentators are by no means agreed.” The verb “to worm” means “to deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.” Even more puzzling was “trolmydames,”a word which Shakespeare put in the mouth of the meddlesome pickpocket Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. The defeated lexicographer confesses simply, “Of this word I know not the meaning.”
I’ve emphasized the failures here, primarily because I find them so entertaining, but also because they are a vivid reminder of the true novelty of Johnson’s approach: he was inventing the rules of lexicography as he went along. His dictionary was both the most comprehensive and the most systematic to have been published; he settled on a method, culling words--and supporting quotations--from all the best writers in all fields, and he followed it through. Yet today, the result appears remarkably haphazard--especially to someone like me, obsessed by system and consistency. Certain words appear in definitions but not as headwords, despite Johnson’s having grasped the principle that every word used to define must also itself be defined. Many words that, according to Hitchings, were in fairly common use (for example, athlete, port wine, and nemesis) do not appear at all, while Johnson makes space for words that were (and are) extremely obscure, from scientific terms (ophiophagous, brontology) to Shakespearean insults (jolthead, garlickeater). Some terms have multiple supporting quotations and lengthy etymologies, and some have almost no support. Words are spelled differently as headwords and as components of definitions.
But such lapses are mainly of interest as reminders of the limitations within which Johnson was working--they barely lessen his achievement. Working almost entirely on his own, fighting melancholy and ill health, Johnson composed a dictionary defining nearly 43,000 words, many of which definitions were adopted by the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary more than a century later. By the end of Defining the World, the immensity of Johnson’s achievement is clear, and it’s hard not to become one more in the extremely long line of the Doctor’s admirers.
I’ll end with one last word, “tarantula,” and Hitchings’s explanation of Johnson’s definition. It, as well as anything, serves to set Johnson in his own time—and remind us of how impressive it is that, all these years later, we’re still using an English that Johnson would understand, and we’re still talking and reading about his Dictionary.
Johnson tells us that a tarantula “is an insect whose bite is only cured by music.” This curious belief is recorded by Samuel Pepys among others, and had recently been confirmed by a Neapolitan violinsis, who had described in the Gentleman’s Magazine his success in curing a man who had been bitten under the lip of his ear. Johnson, with a touch of self-mockery, quotes Locke: “He that uses the word tarantula, without having any idea of what it stands for, means nothing at all by it.”
Maybe this winter I’ll read Boswell. Oh, and for those who want more Johnson, but don’t want to tackle Rasselas or Boswell’s Life, David R. Godine has a great little book book of Johnson bits, A Johnson Sampler
PS This book is much, much better and more interesting than Simon Winchester's surprisingly popular (and surprisingly poorly written) book about the making of the OED, The Professor and the Madman. Not that books about dictionaries are directly substitutable goods, but if you're picking one . . .