Thursday, March 29, 2007

Book Review: "Defining the World"

Henry Hitchings' Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (FSG, 2005) is a lively and readable trek through the incredible feat that was the creation of Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Hitchings ably guides his reader through Johnson's haphazard creative process, outlining the way in which the lexicographer culled his illustrative quotations (when not from memory, that is) and worked with his small coterie of amanuenses to make the projected dictionary a reality.

This book centers on the Dictionary from first to last; with Johnson it's easy to be distracted by the man himself, and there is just enough of the biography here to get a feel for the creator without losing sight of the creation. Hitchings discusses various aspects (quirks?) of the Dictionary, from Johnson's perennial defining words (interstices, morbid, e.g., which each appear several times) to his nationalistic, "middle-class, backward-looking, Anglocentric, male" biases to the few downright mistakes, and the more common vague or circular definitions. Among those oddities I enjoyed most: the definition of "defluxion" as "a defluxion," and the dismissal of "trolmydames" (used by Shakespeare in The Winter's Tale) with simply "Of this word I know not the meaning."

The definitions of "oats," and a few others notwithstanding, as Hitchings points out, the "real surprise of Johnson's Dictionary is that despite its author's reputation as a man of rather cramped sympathies, its entries are as clinical and unprejudiced as they are." The work was taken seriously, for all its wit.

Hitchings also includes some fascinating details about the printing and publication details of the Dictionary, from the type and paper used to the various later editions, abridgements and pirated versions which spread Johnson's reputation far and wide. These are important and interesting topics, and they were most welcome (to me, at least).

Well footnoted at least, this book's main fault is the lack of a full bibliography. But perhaps Johnson's quote about dictionaries can be extended more widely here: "The worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."

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