Use this forum to suggest Good Words for Professor Beard.
M. Henri Day
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Postby M. Henri Day » Sat Apr 02, 2005 10:54 am

For a reason which becomes clear immediately upon perusing the article reproduced below, I humbly beg our own Good Doctor to reserve the 15th April for the above word, even if it means having to rearrange an already established schedule. I cannot conceive of a more appropriate way to celebrate this, for lovers of the English language, most significant anniversary....


PS : Judging from what Ms Bainbridge writes, the appropriate modern diagnosis for Mr Johnson's mood disorder would be bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder. He is already well known to have suffered from Tourette's syndrome, with tics and coprolalia....

Words count

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary was published 250 years ago this month. Beryl Bainbridge describes how a failed teacher and celebrated 'hack' worked for nine years in a London garret to redefine the English language - and his reputation

Beryl Bainbridge
Saturday April 2, 2005

In 1746, some months after his 36th birthday, Samuel Johnson, that great literary figure of the 18th century, affectionately referred to as the Good Doctor, began work on his monumental Dictionary of the English Language . It took him nine years. April 15 marks the 250th anniversary of its publication.
Johnson was already an established man of letters, famous for his epitaphs, his parliamentary debates, his translations of the Odes of his favourite poet, Horace, numerous essays written for the Gentleman's Magazine and for his epic poem, "The Vanity of Human Wishes". His contemporaries were the giants of the age, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, yet it is his name that resounds the loudest in the 21st century.
In any week in the broadsheets, in parliamentary debates, in discussion programmes on both radio and television, the remark "as Dr Johnson once said" frequently occurs, followed by a pithy and erudite quotation. The curious fact is that but for a young and often inebriated Scottish lawyer called James Boswell, the name of Samuel Johnson, Dictionary or not, would have been forgotten long ago; few people have read a word of the poems or essays. Boswell's biography of the "Good Doctor", whom he met in 1763, is a work of genius, so real, so modern in its immediacy, that its subject remains untouchable to this day.
Johnson was born the son of a bookseller in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18 1709. He was a sickly child whose wet nurse infected him with tuberculosis. Blind in one eye, scarred on the lower part of his face, and a lifelong martyr to both emphysema and depression - the latter affliction he termed the Black Dog - he was also prodigiously clever, and in 1728, owing to a small legacy left to his mother, he went up to Oxford. While there, he wrote a poem called "The Young Author", a less ambitious version of his "Vanity of Human Wishes" written 20 years later. This earlier version shows his preparation for the coming of broken hopes and ambitions, and signals his determination never again to be fooled by a belief in the future, to remain aware of the maxim quoted by Horace, "To be forewarned is to be forearmed".
Whether Johnson left Oxford because he could no longer pay the fees or on account of a particularly severe attack of melancholia is not clear; "The Young Author" shows that he was already confronting what he had become and recalling what he might have been. That he knew so early the dilemma of life is a mark of his understanding.
After Oxford, Johnson became an unsuccessful schoolteacher; one of his pupils was a Lichfield contemporary, the actor David Garrick, with whom he later went to London. Garrick soon realised his ambitions and became the leading light of the Drury Lane Theatre; Johnson remained for many years what he himself dismissively referred to as a "hack".
In 1735, Johnson married the widow Elizabeth Porter, whom he called Tetty. He was 25 and she was 46. He was an awkward, unprepossessing young man of a sensual disposition and no previous experience of women. She, by the standards of the time, was past her best, had borne three children and was genuinely fond of him. He too, judging by his out pourings of grief after her death, loved her, but he was not the ideal husband, being stormy by nature and ill-equipped to understand her needs. On their wedding day, riding to Derby to be married, she told her bridegroom he was riding too fast. When he slowed down she overtook him and complained he was too slow. Out of patience he galloped from sight, at which she shed tears. Touchingly conscious of the difference in their ages, she often played the coquette, an affectation his friends ridiculed. Gradually she took to drink and opium and was left at home while her husband strode around Soho Square all night engaged in conversation with the notorious poet Richard Savage.
In 1746, after signing the contract to start work on the Dictionary, Johnson rented a house off Fleet Street, No 17 Gough Square, now a museum visited by thousands of tourists. The ground floor consisted of a dining room and a sitting room connected by folding doors. Above was a bedroom and a second sitting room intended for the use of Tetty, though she for much of the time was now living in Hampstead; two further bedrooms occupied the third floor. The large garret was used as a workshop for Johnson and his six assistants, five Scots and one Englishman, who, being close to destitution when hired, were possibly chosen out of compassion rather than reason. Here labour on the mighty dictionary began, Johnson working at an "old crazy deal table" while perched on a three-legged chair propped against the wall to stop it from toppling over.
For more than half a century the English intellectual world had been mortified by the lack of a major English dictionary. The great national dictionaries had been produced by Italy and France, the former in 1612 and the latter completed in 1700. It seemed impossible that anyone in England could tackle the magnitude of such a task. A schoolmaster called Nathan Bailey had made a good attempt in 1721, but it dealt primarily with the origin of words. Some definitions were on the casual side, for example, "Horse - beast well-known". Johnson supplies five definitions, including "Joined to another substantive it signifies something large and coarse, as in horse-face".
In all, he defined more than 40,000 words, illustrating their meanings by the inclusion of 140,000 quotations drawn from writings in English from the middle of the Elizabethan period down to his own time. According to his friend, Sir John Hawkins, he used books on his own shelves to provide quotations, and borrowed others, some from Garrick, who later complained that on their return the pages were so dog-eared and scored through that he had to throw them away.
Johnson kept 80 notebooks and wrote that he began his task by devoting his first care to a diligent perusal of all such English writers as were most correct in their language, and drew a line under every sentence that he meant to quote, noting in the margin the first letter of the word beneath which it would occur. Next he delivered these books to clerks, who transcribed each sentence on a separate slip of paper and arranged the same under the word referred to. When the whole arrangement was alphabetically formed, he gave the definition of their meanings and collected their etymologies. All this from a man who considered himself indolent and was forever resolving to spend less time in bed.
Tetty died before the Dictionary was completed, leaving Johnson battling with grief and contrition. He was not alone in the house, nor in the houses he later rented in Johnson's Court and Bolt Court, for though he could be irritable with, and often downright rude to, those he considered his equals, his kindness to others less fortunate than himself was nothing short of saintly. The permanent collection of lost souls he supported consisted of the blind Mrs Williams, daughter of a Welsh surgeon; Mrs Desmoulins, widowed daughter of his Lichfield godfather, Dr Swifen; Robert Levet, who sometimes earned money from administering medicine to the poor - more often he was paid in drink - who had recently abandoned the prostitute bride he had met in a coal-hole. Lastly there was Francis Barber, a black boy whom Johnson sent away to school - to little effect - and who was later left the Good Doctor's money and watch. Sometimes too, there was Poll, a young woman he had found in the street and carried home on his shoulders.
It was a lively household, to put it at its mildest. Mrs Williams argued with Mrs Desmoulins, who detested Levet, who got on with neither of them. The presence of Barber aroused heated discussion, for Johnson refused to regard him as an underling. When the cat needed meat, he himself went out to buy it; he said Barber shouldn't be thought of as a servant. Visitors to the house were astonished by the variety of its occupants, and the regard in which Johnson held the befuddled Levet. One of Johnson's best poems was written on the death of his friend; perhaps, but for quirks of fate, he thought he and Levet were kindred spirits. Johnson had given up drink for Tetty, in spite of once remarking that no man is really happy "but when he is drunk".
It was after Tetty's death that Johnson met the Thrales of Streatham Park, a fortunate meeting that gave him security. One afternoon, visiting his house, the Thrales were appalled to find him on his knees on the stairs, clutching the breeches of a cleric and crying aloud to his maker to save him from madness. Concerned, Henry Thrale instructed his wife to take Johnson to their house in the country, a refuge which for the next 17 years he came to regard as his home. Mrs Thrale nursed him, listened to him, sat up half the night pouring him cups of tea. He returned to Bolt Court most weekends to make sure his ill-matched dependents had enough money to live on.
I visited the house in Gough Square when I began a novel about Dr Johnson, an undertaking inspired by both the writings of Boswell and my involvement with the publishing house of Gerald Duckworth. My editor was the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, my publisher her husband, Colin Haycraft, a man who could quote Dr Johnson verbatim. To say their influence dictated my writing career is an understatement. Their house in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, with its dinner parties entertaining professors from Oxford - Michael Dummett, Richard Cobb, Hugh Lloyd Jones - all downing the whisky and arguing as to the merits of Horace and Gibbon, was surely an echo of those long gone evenings in Gough Square.
Johnson died in 1784 and underwent an autopsy at William Hunter's School of Anatomy, off Shaftesbury Avenue. Though his liver, pancreas and kidneys were diseased, his heart was pronounced large and strong. Boswell's biography is important not just for its listings of what its subject achieved in literature and scholarship, but rather for its portrayal of a human being, flawed, eccentric, opinionated, dogmatic, above all lovable.
No 17 Gough Square still retains an atmosphere of the 18th century. To wander through its rooms, however free from candle grease, is to those who prefer the past to the present a reminder of how life used to be before electric light, electronics and the internet shrank the world. Here in the garret, parked on his shaky chair, Johnson, muttering, spluttering, penned an English Dictionary into life.
One floor below, poor Tetty squirmed on her pillow and fought for breath. In the ground-floor sitting room Mrs Desmoulins watched Mrs Williams stumbling into furniture. In darkness, Robert Levet weaved his way across the pebbled court and fell down the basement steps.
All that was yesterday, a word defined and illustrated in the Dictionary as follows:
"Day last past; day next before to-day.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
Last edited by M. Henri Day on Sat Apr 02, 2005 3:46 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Postby KatyBr » Sat Apr 02, 2005 2:42 pm

Henri thanks for posting this article, very interesting and I love the shakespearian poem at the end, always have, here is the rest
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

-- William Shakespeare


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Postby tcward » Sat Apr 02, 2005 10:23 pm

Yes, and a much better suggestion ("dictionary") than the other obvious alternative ("johnson")!

-Tim :lol:

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Postby M. Henri Day » Mon May 16, 2005 5:57 am

Though I failed in my attempt to convince Dr Goodword to choose the above as GWotD on the 250[sup]th[/sup] anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's work, I take the liberty of hoping that both he and other Agorists will find the New Statesman book review reproduced below of some interest....



Dr Johnson's Dictionary: the extraordinary story of the book that defined the world

Henry Hitchings John Murray, 278pp, £14.99
ISBN 0719566312
Reviewed by Will Self

Reading is my second favourite pastime - but rereading is my favourite. Henry Hitchings's book on Samuel Johnson's mighty Dictionary is so good, so apposite, so chewy and edible, that I felt as if I were rereading it on my first pass. How, one wonders, given the mighty size of the Johnson industry, could it be that this particular book was not written decades ago, if not centuries? Other writers have their guttering flames kept alight by a handful of devotees, but Johnson's has grown into a con- flagration stoked by sweating hordes of academics.

Why should this be so? In part, as Hitchings observes, it is because Johnson was the first English literary celebrity; or, to be strictly accurate, the first English writer to achieve genuine notoriety, having descended not from some ivory tower, but from the teeming garrets of Grub Street. How this happened Hitchings also limns in: Johnson was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. G K Chesterton said of his own era (although he might as well have said it of ours) that "the English love a talented mediocrity", but in the mid-18th century the burgeoning and increasingly self-conscious English middle class needed a genius of the middling sort to love - and this became Sam Johnson.

Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, the very epicentre of Middle England. The lineaments of his life are well known precisely because he became the ambulatory test bed for his friend James Boswell's ground-breaking experiment in biography. All biographers of the living have a certain ghoulish- ness about them - standing by the roadside of life, waiting for their subject to drive by, so that when he crashes they can write it down - and Boswell, whose instabilities of character were legion, was prototypical in this as well. However, in his drive to mythologise Johnson, Boswell can be forgiven his inaccuracies, for as Hitchings remarks: "The Johnson of legend is Johnson the pensioner, free to ramble, idle and adventure, to travel with Boswell to the Hebrides and sleep on hay in his riding coat."

Hitchings's task is to rescue Johnson from Boswell's atten-tions, much as Adam Sisman rescued the biographer from his own self-mythologising in Boswell's Presumptuous Task (2000), a logical companion piece to this work. The Johnson of the Dictionary was never known to Boswell, and as the older man was ill-disposed to animadvert on his younger self, Boswell got such basics as the great man's working methods on the Dictionary glaringly wrong. Not so Hitchings. He presents us with a man who was above all a hack, and who rode to prominence on the mechanical horse of the printing press. It was the explo-sion of print culture in the mid-18th century that made Johnson a household name.

This is the Johnson who, in the 1750s, as well as compiling the Dictionary, churned out 10,000 words a day in order to put food on the table - and not just his own. He was, as Hitchings notes, "prodigiously generous, and generously profligate". This is the Johnson who single-handedly wrote an entire, twice-weekly periodical for two years (The Rambler) on top of innumerable other prefaces, introductions, feuilletons and puffs. Not forgetting moral and political essays, the odd satirical poem and a verse drama. Hitchings relates that one Archibald "Horrible" Campbell, a ship's purser, wrote his parodic attack upon Johnson after being confined on a long journey with only The Rambler and the Dictionary for company; he averred that his nemesis had written the former "to make a dictionary necessary, and afterwards compile[d] his dictionary to explain his Rambles".

"Horrible" was on to something here: it was precisely the new ubiquity of the printed word which made necessary a work that would serve to regularise orthography and semantics. The French had their dictionary, laboriously compiled by a posse of academicians over decades; the Italians were under way with theirs; but where was the English equivalent? Into this breach stepped Johnson who, with the jingoism that was to become one of his abiding legacies, claimed he would be able to complete the monumental task in a mere three years, calculating that the endeavours of one Englishman were worth those of 40 Frenchmen.

In fact, it took him far longer, even with the help of six Scots amanuenses to do the tedious graft of clipping and transcribing his references and quotations. In part, as Hitchings explains, this was because Johnson realised early on the impossibility of creating a prescriptive dictionary that would act to regularise the very use of the language as well as its typographic representation. Initially Johnson feared that his own beloved English - the golden age of which he located during the reign of Elizabeth - would become as incomprehensible to the readers of a future age as Chaucerian English was to his own. At an intuitive level, however, he soon grasped that the ceaseless motion of the tongue was quite unstoppable, and the best he could do was to describe what writers meant by the words they employed, rather than tell the Dictionary's readers what words they had to speak.

Hitchings locates the Dictionary within the great European tradition of the Encyclopaedists, and takes us into a close understanding of the way this "impoverished encyclopaedia" - to quote Umberto Eco - was compiled. Both available space and inclination prevent me from detailing all of this now; buy Hitchings's book and find out for yourself. Suffice to say that the trip to the source of this mighty Amazon of verbiage is never dull. Readers of Simon Winchester's two works on the Oxford English Dictionary, and fans of the new descriptive social history exemplified by Claire Tomalin's book on Samuel Pepys, will find ample stimulation here, as Hitchings skilfully melds the practice of compiling the dictionary with the biography of its author.

Hitchings also deploys a neat combination of demotic, contemporary cultural references - from Harry Potter to Blackadder - with recondite phrasing to get across the ongoing influence and importance of his subject's achievement. It is not often - except on the wilder shores of cultural studies - that one comes across phrases such as "disingenuously poised" and "in epitome at least" alongside mentions of X-Men and The Lord of the Rings. Hitchings, whose doctoral thesis was on Johnson, can be forgiven his unabashed adulation for his cash cow, but to the rest of us, despite his relatively enlightened positions on women's rights and welfarism, Johnson's High Anglican, Tory sensibilities can often jar. Yet Hitchings is unstinting in acknowledging the Dictionary's limitations as well as its manifold strengths.

One personal gripe: Hitchings points out that, with a mere 42,773 entries, the Dictionary may seem pretty sparse (the first edition of the OED managed more than half a million), especially given that he believes the average, educated person to have a working vocabulary of 50,000 words, together with the ability to recognise at least 10,000 more. Now, I am no sesquipedalian myself, and contrary to what some critics of my work imagine, I do not spend my time wilfully perusing the dictionary for recondite terms, nor sneakily coining neologisms, yet I am constantly being accosted by readers who tell me that although they enjoy what I write, they have to have a dictionary on hand in order to understand it. Hitchings writes - with reference to Johnson's 6,000 quotations in the Dictionary from the idiosyncratic work of Sir Thomas Browne - that "Any writer with an enthusiasm for the outlandish will chafe against boundaries of ordinary usage: to write about extreme experiences, you need to reach for vivid, unfamiliar vocabulary . . ." But judging by my own, limited, empirical sample, I have to tell him that there is no enthusiasm for such chafing in the present era, and that if a Johnson were to arise among us now - let alone a Browne - he would be resolutely gored, a fate that Hitchings's own work will, I hope, evade.

Will Self's Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe is published in paperback by Penguin (£7.99)

This review first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.

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Postby Dr. Goodword » Fri May 20, 2005 10:52 am


My abject apologies for not running dictionary on April 15--what a missed opportunity! It was not a failure on anyone's part to convince me, just my inability to keep up with the Agora.

In the future, if you see a time-sensitive opportunity like this, please feel free to drop me an e-mail (which I answer every day) to rbeard att lexiteria dott com or a private letter through the Agora. I think you just click my name to get to the page that allows private correspondence. The Brazilian Dude knows how to do it.

I, in return, will try harder to carve out time to run through all the Agora sections over the weekend more regularly.
• The Good Dr. Goodword

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Postby Brazilian dude » Fri May 20, 2005 11:19 am

The Brazilian Dude knows how to do it.

That was supposed to be only between me and you, dude.

Brazilian dude
Languages rule!

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Postby M. Henri Day » Fri May 20, 2005 11:30 am

Now that I have been disabused of my admittedly naive and self-serving notion of our good doctor, hovering like an anxious parent over every posting to the Agora, I shall certainly provide notice of any time-sensitive opportunities that occur to me (apart from stock market info - those laws regulating insider affairs give me the willies). In this connexion, fellow Agorists might wish to note that 2005, besides being the year of the 250[sup]th[/sup] anniversary of the publication of Johnson's work and that of the 100[sup]th[/sup] anniversary of Einstein's annus mirabilis, also - and not least - is the year of the 400[sup]th[/sup] anniversary of the publication of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, which seems to have gone on sale in January 1605....


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