Book: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

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Sesquipedalian (se:skwipdi·lin), a. and sb. [f. L. sesquipedlis: see SESQUIPEDAL and -IAN.]
A. adj. 1. Of words and expressions (after Horace’s sesquipedalia verba ‘words a foot and a half long’, A. P. 97): Of many syllables.
B. sb. 1. A person or thing that is a foot and a half in height or length.
1615 Curry-Combe for Coxe-Combe iii. 113 He thought fit by his variety, to make you knowne for a viperous Sesquipedalian in euery coast. 1656 Blount Glossogr
2. A sesquipedalian word.
1830 Fraser’s Mag. I. 350 What an amazing power in writing down hard names and sesquipedalians does not the following passage manifest! 1894 Nat. Observer 6 Jan. 194/2 His sesquipedalians recall the utterances of another Doctor.
Hence Se:squipeda·lianism, style characterized by the use of long words; lengthiness


It was also on a foggy day in November, nearly a quarter of a century earlier, that the central events on the other side of this curious conjunction got properly under way. But while Doctor Minor arrived in London on a wintry November morning and took himself to an unfashionable lodging house in Victoria, this very different set of events took place early on a wintry November evening, and in an exceedingly select quarter of Mayfair.

The date was November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, 1857, the time was shortly after six, and the place a narrow terraced house at the northwest corner of one of London’s most fashionable and aristocratic oases, St. James’s Square. On all sides were the grand townhouses and private clubs of the extraordinary number of bishops and peers and members of Parliament who lived there. The finest shops in town were just a stone’s throw away, as well as the prettiest churches, the most splendid offices, the oldest and most haughty of foreign embassies. The corner building on St. James’s Square housed an institution that was central to the intellectual lives of the great men who lived nearby (a role it still plays today, though happily in a somewhat more democratic world). It provided accommodation for what its admirers regarded then as they still do today the finest private collection of publicly accessible books in the world, the London Library.

The library had moved there twelve years before, from cramped quarters on Pall Mall. The new building was tall and capacious, and although today it is filled to bursting with many more than a million books, back in 1857 it had only a few thousand volumes and plenty of space to spare. So its committee decided early on to raise extra money by renting out rooms, though only, it was decreed, to societies whose adherents were likely to share the same lofty aims of scholarship as did the library itself, and whose members would be able to mingle happily with the aristocratic and often staggeringly snobbish gentlemen who made up the library’s own membership rolls.

Two groups were chosen: The Statistical Society was one, the Philological Society the other. It was at a fortnightly meeting of the latter, held in an upstairs room on that chilly Thursday evening, that words were spoken that were to set in train a most remarkable series of events.

The speaker was the dean of Westminster, a formidable cleric by the name of Richard Chenevix Trench. Perhaps more than any other man alive, Doctor Trench personified the sweepingly noble ambitions of the Philological Society. He firmly believed, as did most of its two hundred members, that some kind of divine ordination lay behind what seemed then the ceaseless dissemination of the English language around the planet.

God—who in that part of London society was of course firmly held to be an Englishman—naturally approved the spread of the language as an essential imperial device; but he also encouraged its undisputed corollary, which was the worldwide growth of Christianity. The equation was really very simple, a formula for undoubted global good: The more English there was in the world, the more God-fearing its peoples would be. (And for a Protestant cleric there was a useful subtext: If English did manage eventually to outstrip the linguistic influences of the Roman Church, then its reach might even help bring the two churches back into some kind of ecumenical—if Anglican-dominated—harmony.)

So, even though the society’s stated role was academic, its informal purpose, under the direction of divines like Doctor Trench, was much more robustly chauvinist. True, earnestly classical philological discussions—of obscure topics like “Sound-Shifts in the Papuan and Negrito Dialects,” or “The Role of the Explosive Fricative in High German”—did lend the society scholarly heft, which was all very well. But the principal purpose of the group was in fact improving the understanding of what all members regarded as the properly dominant language of the world, and that was their own.

Sixty members were assembled at six o’clock on that November evening. Darkness had fallen on London soon after half past five. The gas lamps fizzed and sputtered, and on the corners of Piccadilly and Jermyn Street small boys were still collecting last-minute pennies for fireworks, their ragged models of old Guy Fawkes—soon to be burned on bonfires—propped up before them. Already in the distance the whistles and crashes and hisses of exploding rockets and Roman candles could be heard, as early parties got under way.

Like the fire-frightened housemaids who hurried back down to the servants’ entrances of the great houses nearby, the old philologists, cloaked against the chill, scuttled through the gloom. They were men who had long since outgrown such energetic diversions. They were eager to get away from the sound of explosions and the excitement of celebration, and repair to the calm of scholarly discourse.

Moreover, the topic for their evening’s entertainment looked promising, and not in the least taxing. Doctor Trench was to discuss, in a two-part lecture that had been billed as of considerable importance, the subject of dictionaries. The title of his talk suggested a bold agenda: He would tell his audience that those few dictionaries that then existed suffered from a number of serious shortcomings—grave deficiencies from which both the language and—by implication—the empire and its church might well eventually come to suffer. For those Victorians who accepted the sturdy precepts of the Philological Society, this was just the kind of talk they liked to hear.


The “English dictionary,” in the sense that we commonly use the phrase today—as an alphabetically arranged list of English words, together with an explanation of their meanings—is a relatively new invention. Four hundred years ago there was no such convenience available on any English bookshelf.

There was none available, for instance, when William Shakespeare was writing his plays. Whenever he came to use an unusual word, or to set a word in what seemed an unusual context—and his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples—he had almost no way of checking the propriety of what he was about to do. He was not able to reach into his bookshelves and select any one volume to help: He would not be able to find any book that might tell him if the word he had chosen was properly spelled, whether he had selected it correctly, or had used it in the right way in the proper place.

Shakespeare was not even able to perform a function that we consider today as perfectly normal and ordinary a function as reading itself. He could not, as the saying goes, “look something up.” Indeed the very phrase—when it is used in the sense of “searching for something in a dictionary or encylopaedia or other book of reference”—simply did not exist. It does not appear in the English language, in fact, until as late as 1692, when an Oxford historian named Anthony Wood used it.

Since there was no such phrase until the late seventeenth century, it follows that there was essentially no such concept either, certainly not at the time when Shakespeare was writing—a time when writers were writing furiously, and thinkers thinking as they rarely had before. Despite all the intellectual activity of the time there was in print no guide to the tongue, no linguistic vade mecum, no single book that Shakespeare or Martin Frobisher, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nash, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Izaak Walton, or any of their other learned contemporaries could consult.

Consider, for instance, Shakespeare’s writing of Twelfth Night, which he completed sometime at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. Consider the moment, probably in the summer of 1601, when he has reached the writing of the scene in the third act in which Sebastian and Antonio, the shipwrecked sailor and his rescuer, have just arrived in port and are wondering where they might stay the night. Sebastian considers the question for a moment, and then, in the manner of someone who has read and well remembered his Good Hotel Guide of the day, declares quite simply: “In the south suburbs at the Elephant/Is best to lodge.”

Now what; exactly, did William Shakespeare know about elephants? Moreover, what did he know of Elephants as hotels? The name was one that was given to a number of lodging houses in various cities dotted around Europe. This particular Elephant, given that this was Twelfth Night, happened to be in Illyria; but there were many others, two of them at least in London. But however many there were—just why was this the case? Why name an inn after such a beast? And what was such a beast anyway? All of these are questions that, one would think, a writer should at least have been able to answer.

Yet they were not. If Shakespeare did not happen to know very much about elephants, which was likely, and if he were unaware of this curious habit of naming hotels after them—just where could he go to look the question up? And more—if he wasn’t precisely sure that he was giving his Sebastian the proper reference for his lines—for was the inn really likely to be named after an elephant, or was it perhaps named after another animal, a camel or a rhino, or a gnu?—where could he look to make quite sure? Where in fact would a playwright of Shakespeare’s time look any word up?

One might think he would want to look things up all the time. “Am not I consanguineous?” he writes in the same play. A few lines on he talks of “thy doublet of changeable taffeta.” He then declares: “Now is the woodcock near the gin.” Shakespeare’s vocabulary was evidently prodigious: But how could he be certain that in all the cases where he employed unfamiliar words, he was grammatically and factually right? What prevented him, to nudge him forward by a couple of centuries, from becoming an occasional Mr. Malaprop?

The questions are worth posing simply to illustrate what we would now think of as the profound inconvenience of his not once being able to refer to a dictionary. At the time he was writing there were atlases aplenty, there were prayer books, missals, histories, biographies, romances, and books of science and art. Shakespeare is thought to have drawn many of his classical allusions from a specialized Thesaurus that had been compiled by a man named Thomas Cooper—its many errors are replicated far too exactly in the plays for it to be coincidence—and he is thought also to have drawn from Thomas Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique. But that was all; there were no other literary, linguistic, and lexical conveniences available.

In the sixteenth century in England, dictionaries such as we would recognize today simply did not exist. If the language that so inspired Shakespeare had limits, if its words had definable origins, spellings, pronunciations, meanings—then no single book existed that established them, defined them, and set them down. It is perhaps difficult to imagine so creative a mind working without a single work of lexicographical reference beside him, other than Mr. Cooper’s crib (which Mrs. Cooper once threw into the fire, prompting the great man to begin all over again) and Mr. Wilson’s little manual, but that was the condition under which his particular genius was compelled to flourish. The English language was spoken and written—but at the time of Shakespeare it was not defined, not fixed. It was like the air—it was taken for granted, the medium that enveloped and defined all Britons. But as to exactly what it was, what its components were—who knew?

That is not to say there were no dictionaries at all. There had been a collection of Latin words published as a Dictionarius as early as 1225, and a little more than a century later another, also Latin-only, as a helpmeet for students of Saint Jerome’s difficult translation of the Scriptures known as the Vulgate. In 1538 the first of a series of Latin-English dictionaries appeared in London—Thomas Elyot’s alphabetically arranged list, which happened to be the first book to employ the English word dictionary in its title. Twenty years later a man named Withals put out A Shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Beginners in both languages, but with the words arranged not alphabetically but by subject, such as “the names of Byrdes, Byrdes of the Water, Byrdes about the house, as cockes, hennes, etc., of Bees, Flies, and others.”

But what was still lacking was a proper English dictionary, a full statement of the extent of the English tongue. With one single exception, of which Shakespeare probably did not know when he died in 1616, this need remained stubbornly unfulfilled. Others were to remark on the apparent lack as well. In the very same year as Shakespeare’s death, his friend John Webster wrote his The Duchess of Malfi, incorporating a scene in which the duchess’s brother Ferdinand imagines that he is turning into a wolf, “a pestilent disease they call licanthropia.” “What is that?” cries one of the cast. “I need a dictionary to’t!”

But in fact someone, a Rutland schoolmaster named Robert Cawdrey, who later moved to teach in Coventry, had evidently been listening to this drumbeat of demand. He read and took copious notes from all the reference books of the day and eventually produced his first halfhearted attempt at what was wanted by publishing such a list in 1604 (the year Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure).

It was a small octavo book of 120 pages, which Cawdrey titled A Table Alphabeticall…of hard unusual English Words. It had about 2,500 word entries. He had compiled it, he said, “for the benefit & help of Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskilful persons, Whereby they may more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.” It had many shortcomings; but it was without doubt the very first true monolingual English dictionary, and its publication remains a pivotal moment in the history of English lexicography.

For the next century and a half there was a great flurry of commercial activity in the field, and dictionary after dictionary thundered off the presses, each one larger than the next, each boasting of superior value in the educating of the uneducated (among whom were counted the women of the day, most of whom enjoyed little schooling, compared to the men).

Throughout the seventeenth century these books tended to concentrate, as Cawdrey’s first offering had, on what were called “hard words”—words that were not in common, everyday use, or else words that had been invented specifically to impress others, the so-called “inkhorn terms” with which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books seem well larded. Thomas Wilson, whose Arte of Rhetorique had helped Shakespeare, published examples of the high-flown style, such as that from a clergyman in Lincolnshire writing to a government official, begging a promotion:

There is a Sacerdotall dignitie in my native Countrey contiguate to me, where I now contemplate: which your worshipfull benignitie could sone impenetrate for mee, if it would like you to extend your sedules, and collaude me in them to the right honourable lord Chaunceller, or rather Archgrammacian of Englande.

The fact that the volumes concentrated on only the small section of the national vocabulary that encompassed such nonsense might seem today to render them bizarrely incomplete, but back then their editorial selection was regarded as a virtue. Speaking and writing thus was the highest ambition of the English smart set. “We present for you,” trumpeted the editor of one such volume to would-be members, “the choicest words.”

So, fantastic linguistic creations like abequitate, bulbulcitate, and sullevation appeared in these books alongside archgrammacian and contiguate, with lengthy definitions; there were words like necessitude, commotrix, and parentate—all of which are now listed, if listed at all, as “obsolete” or “rare” or both. Pretentious and flowery inventions adorned the language—perhaps not all that surprising, considering the flowery fashion of the times, with its perukes and powdered periwigs; its rebatos and doublets; its ruffs, ribbons; and scarlet velvet Rhinegraves. So words like adminiculation, cautionate, deruncinate, and attemptate are placed in the vocabulary too, each duly cataloged in the tiny leather books of the day; yet they were words meant only for the loftiest ears, and were unlikely to impress Cawdrey’s intended audience of ladies, gentlewomen, and “unskillful persons.”

The definitions offered by these books were generally unsatisfactory too. Some offered mere one-word or barely illuminating synonyms—magnitude: “greatness,” or ruminate: “to chew over again, to studie earnestly upon.” Sometimes the definitions were simply amusing: Henry Cockeram’s The English Dictionarie of 1623 defines commotrix as “A Maid that makes ready and unready her Mistress,” while parentate is “To celebrate one’s parents’ funerals.” Or else the creators of these hardword books put forward explanations that were complex beyond endurance, as in a book called Glossographia by Thomas Blount, which offers as its definition of shrew: “a kind of Field-Mouse, which if he goes over a beasts back, will make him lame in the Chine; and if he bite, the beast swells to the heart, and dyes…. From hence came our English phrase, I beshrew thee, when we wish ill; and we call a curst woman a Shrew.”

Yet in all of this lexicographical sound and fury—seven major dictionaries had been produced in seventeenth-century England, the last having no fewer than thirty-eight thousand headwords—two matters were being ignored.

The first was the need for a good dictionary to encompass the language in its entirety, the easy and popular words as well as the hard and obscure, the vocabulary of the common man as well as that of the learned house, the aristocrat, and the rarefied school. Everything should be included: The mite of a two-letter preposition should have no less standing in an ideal word list than the majesty of a piece of polysyllabic sesquipedalianism.

The second matter that dictionary makers were ignoring was the coming recognition elsewhere that, with Britain and its influence now beginning to flourish in the world—with daring sailors like Drake and Raleigh and Frobisher skimming the seas; with European rivals bending before the might of British power; and with new colonies securely founded in the Americas and India, which spread the English language and English concepts far beyond the shores of England—English was trembling on the verge of becoming a global language. It was starting to be an important vehicle for the conduct of international commerce, arms, and law. It was displacing French, Spanish, and Italian and the courtly languages of foreigners; it needed to be far better known, far better able to be properly learned. An inventory needed to be made of what was spoken, what was written, and what was read.

The Italians, the French, and the Germans were already well advanced in securing their own linguistic heritage, and had gone so far as to ordain institutions to maintain their languages in fine fettle. In Florence the Accademia della Crusca had been founded in 1582, dedicated to maintaining “Italian” culture, even though it would be three centuries before there was a political entity called Italy. But a dictionary of Italian was produced by the Accademia in 1612: The linguistic culture was alive, if not the country. In Paris, Richelieu had established the Académie Française in 1634. The Forty Immortals—rendered in perhaps more sinister fashion as simply “the Forty”—have presided over the integrity of the tongue with magnificent inscrutability until this day.

But the British had taken no such approach. It was in the eighteenth century that the impression grew that the nation needed to know in more detail what its language was, and what it meant. The English at the close of the seventeenth century, it was said, were “uncomfortably aware of their backwardness in the study of their own tongue.” From then on the air was full of schemes for bettering the English language, for giving it greater prestige both at home and abroad.

Dictionaries improved, and very markedly so, during the first half of the new century. The most notable of them, a book that did indeed expand its emphasis from mere hard words to a broad swathe of the entire English vocabulary, was edited by a Stepney boarding-school owner named Nathaniel Bailey. Very little is known about him, other than his membership in the Seventh-Day Baptist Church. But the breadth of his scholarship, the scope of his interest, is amply indicated by the title page of his first edition (there were to be twenty-five between 1721 and 1782, all bestsellers). The page also hints at the quite formidable task that lay ahead of any drudge who might be planning to create a truly comprehensive English lexicon. Bailey’s work was entitled:

A Universal Etymological Dictionary, Comprehending The Derivations of the Generality of Words in the English tongue, either Antient or Modern, from the Antient British, Saxon, Danish, Norman and Modern French, Teutonic, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew Languages, each in their proper Characters. And Also A brief and clear Explication of all difficult Words…and Terms of Art relating to Botany, Anatomy, Physick…Together with A Large Collection and Explication of Words and Phrases us’d in our Antient Statutes, Charters, Writs, Old Records and Processes at Law; and the Etymology and Interpretation of the Proper Names of Men, Woman and Remarkable Places in Great Britain; also the Dialects of our Different Counties. Containing many Thousand Words more than…any English Dictionary before extant. To which is Added a Collection of our most Common Proverbs, with their Explication and Illustration. The whole work compil’d and Methodically digested, as well as for the Entertainment of the Curious as the Information of the Ignorant, and for the Benefit of young Students, Artificers, Tradesmen and Foreigners…

Good the volumes and the effort may have been, but still not quite good enough. Nathaniel Bailey and those who tried to copy him in the first half of the eighteenth century labored mightily at their task, though the task of corralling the entire language became ever larger the more it was considered. Yet still no one seemed intellectually capable, or brave, or dedicated enough, or simply possessed of enough time, to make a truly full record of the entire English language. And that, though no one seemed able even to say so, was what was really wanted. An end to timidity, to pussyfooting—the replacement of the philologically tentative by the lexicographically decisive.


And then came the man whom Tobias Smollett called “Literature’s Great Cham”—one of the most eminent literary figures of all time—Samuel Johnson. He decided to take up the challenge before which so many others had flinched. And even with the critical judgment of the more than two centuries since, it can fairly be said that what he created was an unparalleled triumph. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was, and has remained ever since, a portrait of the language of the day in all its majesty, beauty, and marvelous confusion.

Few are the books that can offer so much pleasure to look at, to touch, to skim, to read.

They can still be found today, often cased in boxes of brown morocco. They are hugely heavy, built for the lectern rather than the hand. They are bound in rich brown leather, the paper is thick and creamy, the print impressed deep into the weave. Few who read the volumes today can fail to be charmed by the quaint elegance of the definitions, of which Johnson was a master. Take for example the word for which Shakespeare might have hunted, elephant. It was, Johnson declared:

The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence and even understanding, many surprising relations are given. This animal is not carnivorous, but feeds on hay, herbs and all sorts of pulse; and it is said to be extremely long lifed. It is naturally very gentle; but when enraged, no creature is more terrible. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a large trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise of prodigious weight with it. His teeth are the ivory so well known in Europe, some of which have been seen as large as a man’s thigh, and a fathom in length. Wild elephants are taken with the help of a female ready for the male: she is confined to a narrow place, round which pits are dug; and these being covered with a little earth scattered over hurdles, the male elephant easily falls into the snare. In copulation the female receives the male lying upon her back; and such is his pudicity, that he never covers the female so long as anyone appears in sight.

Yet Johnson’s dictionary represents more, far more, than mere quaintness and charm. Its publication represented a pivotal moment in the history of the English language; the only more significant moment was to commence almost exactly a century later.

Samuel Johnson had been thinking about and planning the structure of his dictionary for many years. He had been doing so in part to create a reputation for himself. He was a schoolteacher turned scribbler, known only in limited metropolitan circles as the parliamentary sketch writer for the Gentleman’s Magazine. He was eager to have himself better regarded. But he began the process also in response to calls from the giants—demands that something needed to be done.

Theirs was a near-universal complaint. Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, Daniel Defoe, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, the leading lights of English literature, had each spoken out, calling for the need to fix the language. By that—fixing has been a term of lexicographical jargon ever since—they meant establishing the limits of the language, creating an inventory of its word stock, forging its cosmology, deciding exactly what the language was. Their considered view of the nature of English was splendidly autocratic: The tongue, they insisted, had by the turn of the seventeenth century become sufficiently refined and pure that it could only remain static or else thenceforward deteriorate.

By and large they agreed with the beliefs of the Forty Immortals across the Channel (though they would have been loath to admit it): A national standard language needed to be defined, measured, laid down, chased in silver, and carved in stone. Alterations to it then could be permitted or not, according to the mood of the great and the good, a home-grown Forty, a national language authority.

Swift was the fiercest advocate of all. He once wrote to the earl of Oxford to express his outrage that words like bamboozle, uppish, and—of all things—couldn’t were appearing in print. He wanted the establishment of strict rules banning such words as offensive to good sense. In future he wanted all spellings fixed—a firm orthography, the correctness of writing. He wanted the pronunciations laid down—an equally firm orthoepy, the correctness of speech. Rules, rules, rules: They were essential, declared Gulliver’s creator.

The language should be accorded just the same dignity and respect as those other standards that science was then also defining. What is blue or yellow? physicists were then wondering. How hot is boiling water? How long is a yard? How to define what musicians knew as middle C? What, indeed, of the precise measurement of longitude, so vital to seamen? Enormous efforts were being made in this particular field at just the same time as the debate over the national language: A Board of Longitude had been set up by the government, funds were being disbursed, and prizes offered just so that a clock could be invented that would go to sea on a ship and be only almost imperceptibly inaccurate. Longitude was vitally important: So great a trading nation as Britain needed to have its ships’ masters know exactly where they were.

And so the thinking of great literary men went—if longitude was important, if the defining of color, length, mass, and sound was vital—why was the same import not given to the national tongue? As one pamphleteer wailed, appropriately: “We have neither Grammar nor Dictionary, neither Chart nor Compass, to guide us through the wide sea of Words.”

No dictionary had proved adequate so far, said Swift and his friends, but given the heights of perfection that the language had already achieved, one was now needed, and a dedicated genius must be found and applied to the task of making one. It would accomplish two desirable deeds: the fixing of the language and the maintenance of its purity.

Samuel Johnson could not have disagreed more. At least he wanted to have no truck with ordering the language to remain pure. He might have liked it to, but he knew it couldn’t be done. As to whether he thought it possible or desirable to fix it, theses have tumbled by the score from academic presses in recent years, arguing variously that Johnson did want to or that he did not. The consensus now is that he originally planned to make a fix on the tongue, but when he was halfway through his six-year task, he came to realize that it was both impossible and undesirable.

One of his predecessors, Benjamin Martin, explained why: “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 accounted uncouth and barbarous in another.” This dictum, which appeared in the preface to still another half-baked attempt at a proper dictionary just a year before Johnson brought out his own, might as well have guided the Great Cham through his entire construction.

For all the heady talk among London’s intelligentsia, it was actually the free market that prompted Johnson to begin. In 1746 a group of five London booksellers (the famous Messrs. Longman among them) were seized with the idea that a brand-new dictionary would sell like hotcakes: They approached their favorite parliamentary writer, whom they knew to be both eager and broke, and made him an offer he could scarcely refuse: fifteen hundred guineas, half of it up front. Johnson agreed readily, with the sole caveat that he would seek as patron the man who was currently the arbiter of all that was good and worthwhile in literary England, Philip Dormer Stanhope, the fourth earl of Chesterfield.

Lord Chesterfield was one of the most remarkable figures in the land: an ambassador, a lord lieutenant of Ireland, a friend of Pope, Swift, Voltaire, and John Gay. It was Chesterfield who had forced England to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and it was Chesterfield whose letters to his bastard son Philip, advising him on his behavior, became, when published, an indispensable vade mecum of good manners. His imprimatur on the dictionary would be valuable, his patronage of the project invaluable.

That he promised the imprimatur but declined the patronage (except for handing Johnson a draft for a measly ten pounds) but then went on to claim a part in Johnson’s subsequent triumph became a source of well-publicized hard feelings. Lord Chesterfield, Johnson was to say later, taught “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.” Chesterfield had the elephantine hide of a true aristocrat, and brushed off the criticisms as good natured, which they were not.

His early advocacy of the dictionary, plus the seven hundred and fifty guineas that the booksellers had placed in Johnson’s hand, nonetheless set the thirty-seven-year-old editor to work. He took rooms off Fleet Street, hired six serving men (five of them Scotsmen, which would come as some comfort to James Murray, who was from Hawick) as amanuenses, and settled down to the six years of unremitting drudgery that were to prove necessary. He had decided, as Murray was to decide a century later, that the best way—indeed the only way—to compile a full dictionary was to read: to go through all literature and list the words that appeared on hundreds of thousands of pages.

It is an axiom that you have three overlapping choices in making a word list. You may record words that are heard. You may copy the words from other existing dictionaries. Or you may read, after which, in the most painstaking way, you record all the words you have read, sort them, and make them into a list.

Johnson dismissed the first idea as far too cumbersome to be useful; he naturally agreed to the second—all lexicographers use earlier dictionaries as a starting point, to make sure they miss nothing; and, most significantly, he decided on the primary importance of the third choice, reading. Hence the taking of the rooms off Fleet Street, hence the buying or borrowing of books by the ton and the yard and the sack, and hence the hiring of the six men. The team of seven had been created to browse and graze through all existing writings, and to make a catalog of all that was swept into the team’s collective maw.

It was swiftly realized that it would be impossible to look through everything, and so Johnson imposed limits. The language, he decided, had probably reached its peak with the writings of Shakespeare, Bacon, and Edmund Spenser, and so there was probably precious little need to go look further back than their lifetimes. He ruled, therefore, that the works of Sir Philip Sidney, who was only thirty-two when he died in 1586, would usefully mark the starting point for his search; and the last books published by newly dead authors would mark the end.

His dictionary would thus be the result of a concerted trawl through just a century and a half of writing, with the odd piece of Chaucer thrown in for good measure. So Johnson took down these books and read, then underlined and circled words he wanted, and annotated the pages he had chosen; he then demanded that his men copy onto slips of paper the full sentences that displayed his chosen words; and these he then filed, to use when necessary, to illustrate the point he was making, the meaning of a word that he was trying to show.

And it was all those quoted meanings, a demonstration of the multiplicity of subtle shadings of sense that can be encompassed by the simple arrangement of a group of letters, that prove the great triumph of Johnson’s dictionary. For while we might laugh at the quaint charm of his definition of elephant, or of oats (“a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”), or lexicographer (“a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words”), we can only be staggered by his dealing with, say, the verb take. Johnson listed, with supportive quotations, no fewer than 113 senses of this particular verb’s transitive form and 21 of the intransitive. “To seize, grasp or capture; to catch with a hook; to catch someone in an error; to win popular favor; to be effective; to claim to do something; to assume the right…to mount a horse, to flee, to perform what one does in removing one’s clothing….”

The list is almost endless: It was a mark of Samuel Johnson’s genius that, armed with references from 150 years of English writings, he was able, and essentially single-handedly, to find and note almost every use of every word of the day. Not simply take; but other common coin like set and do and go and hundreds upon hundreds of others. Small wonder that once his project was well under way, and the trifling business of his creditors’ needs arose, he once barred the door to the milkman with his bed, crying from behind the door, “Depend on it, I will defend this little citadel to the utmost!”

He finished amassing his list of the English word stock in 1750. He spent the next four years editing the citations and choosing the 118,000 illustrative quotations (sometimes by committing the heresy of changing quotes he didn’t like). Finally he completed the definitions of what were to become the 43,500 chosen headwords. He wrote some of these definitions from scratch, or else he borrowed substantial passages for others from writers he admired (as with elephant, which was partly the work of a man named Calmet).

He did not publish the completed work until 1755, however: He wanted to persuade Oxford University to grant him a degree, believing that if he was able to add it to his name on the title page, it would do Oxford, the book’s sales, and himself—and not necessarily in that order—a lot of good. Oxford agreed; and on April 15, 1755, there appeared:

A Dictionary of the English Language, in which the Words are deduced from their Originals and Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the best Writers to which are prefixed a History of the Language and an English Grammar, by Samuel Johnson, A.M., in Two Volumes.

The book, which went into four editions during Johnson’s lifetime, was to remain the standard work, an unrivaled repository of the English language for the next century. It was an enormous commercial success and was almost universally praised—particularly by the egregious Lord Chesterfield, who hinted that he had had rather more to do with the book’s making than he had. This enraged Johnson; not only did he mutter about whores and dancing masters, but he had up his sleeve the unkindest cut: Under the definition of patron he had written “a wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery”. But the noble Lord brushed this aside too, as Lords are wont to do.

There were some critics. The fact that Johnson allowed his own personality to invade the pages may today seem pleasant whimsy, but to some who wanted the book to be supremely authoritative, it was irritatingly unprofessional. Many writers sniped at the limited authority of some of those whom Johnson quoted—a criticism that Johnson himself anticipated in his preface. Some found the definitions patchy—some trite, some unnecessarily complicated (as with network: “any thing reticulated, or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections”). A century after publication the redoubtable Thomas Babington Macauley was to damn Johnson as “a wretched etymologist.”

But, Macauley aside, many of the critics were probably just jealous, envious that Johnson had done what none of them could ever do. “Any schoolmaster might have done what Johnson did,” wrote one. “His Dictionary is merely a glossary to his own barbarous works.” But the writer was anonymous and quite probably a disappointed rival. or else a rabid Whig: Johnson was a noted Tory and wrote with what some thought a distinctive Tory bias. So the book was merely “a vehicle for Jacobite and high-flying tracts,” wrote one Whig, doubtless a diehard. One woman even disparaged Johnson for failing to include obscenities. “No, Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers,” he replied, archly. “I find, however, that you have been looking for them.”

Yet the accolades were many. Voltaire proposed that the French model a new dictionary of their own on Johnson’s; and the venerable Accademia della Crusca wrote from Florence that Johnson’s work will be “a perpetual Monument of Fame to the Author, an Honour to his own Country in particular, and a general Benefit to the republic of Letters throughout all Europe.” “In an age of dictionaries of all kinds,” wrote a modern consideration, “Johnson’s contribution was simply primus inter pares.” And Robert Burchfield, who edited the four-volume supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1970s, had no doubts: Johnson managed to combine being both a lexicographer and a supremely literate man: “In the whole tradition of the English language and literature the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank is that of Dr. Johnson.”

Throughout it all, under the rains of slings, arrows, plaudits, and encomiums, Samuel Johnson remained calmly modest. Not unduly so, for he was proud of his work but awed by the magnificence of the language he, with such foolhardiness, had chosen to tackle. The book remained his monument. James Murray was to say in later years that whenever someone used the phrase “the Dictionary,” as one might say “the Bible” or “the Prayer Book,” he or she referred to the work by Doctor Johnson.

But no, Literature’s Great Cham would have said—in fact it was the words that were the truest monument, and even more profoundly, the very entities that those words defined. “I am not yet so lost in lexicography,” he says in his famous preface, “as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.” His life had been devoted to the gathering in of those daughters, but it was heaven that had ordained their creation.

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