Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World
London: John Murray, 2005
Reviewed by Diana Dominguez
For dictionary addicts—a group I unabashedly confess to being a part of—Henry Hitchings’ 2005 Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary is a temptation impossible to resist. More than a factual chronicle of the creation of the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, Hitchings has produced a fascinating biography of Johnson, an insightful sociological portrait of Johnson’s environment, and an extraordinary saga of the book that “defined the world,” as Hitchings claims in his subtitle—a claim that he supports admirably in this enjoyable and informative book.
I became enamored of dictionaries shortly after I learned to read. I credit this love affair to the mantra my parents recited any time I encountered and asked for the meaning of an unfamiliar word: “Go to the book.” Eventually, I needed no excuse to take journeys through what became for me a word paradise. In graduate school, one of my favorite courses was the History of the English Language. I literally spent hours in the library researching words and their definitions and descriptive examples in the Oxford English Dictionary and Samuel Johnson’s great Dictionary of the English Language. It was a word junkie’s ultimate trip. I often joke with my students that it's dangerous to send me to look up a word in a dictionary because I’ll never return; there are just too many intriguing words calling like sirens to follow the path blazed by the lexicographer.
And, speaking of lexicographers, possibly my favorite definition from Johnson’s Dictionary is the one he uses for that word, which Hitchings uses as a chapter title in his book: “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words” . I have always been intrigued by Johnson’s sense that a lexicographer is a “harmless drudge,” for the process involved in including words in any dictionary has the power to define a culture, a nation, and society itself, even though today those decisions may be considerably less prescriptive and morally-fueled than they were in Johnson’s day. Hitchings makes the point that, while Johnson could be seen as “compiling” the elements that went into his dictionary—“much of his time did have to be spent piecing together the fragments he collected in the course of his reading” —his role in the dictionary extended beyond this “collection” process.
As Hitchings writes later, explaining Johnson's etymological and historical method of writing definitions for the words he includes in his Dictionary, Johnson “maps the evolution of words and their meanings” , setting the foundation for the way most dictionaries would be assembled afterward. Johnson's method, Hitchings explains, is to “move from the most tangible and literal sense of the word to the most abstract, metaphoric or specialized. What we end up with is a genealogy of meaning” . This etymological, historical approach to structuring definitions “has had huge implications for the way we think about language” . If nothing else, Hitchings makes clear that Johnson—for all that he was—was most certainly not a “harmless drudge.”
The first thing that struck me when I received the book was its structure. Each of the 35 chapters is headed by a definition taken from Johnson’s Dictionary. A first glance through the table of contents and a quick scan of those chapters may indicate a kind of “cutesy” gimmick: a book about a dictionary organized in dictionary fashion. However, that initial, eye-rolling response disappears after reading the first two chapters. Hitchings’ creativity and meticulous effort may not be apparent if all one reads is the first chapter, but once a reader gets through the second chapter, admiration is sure to follow. Within each chapter, Hitchings has “planted” the word that serves as the chapter title, turning the reading of each chapter into a kind of scavenger hunt. Sometimes the word appears in its most basic definition—the object itself, as in his second chapter, “Amulet” [7-12]. Other times, the word may appear in its more metaphoric or symbolic sense, as in the fourth chapter, “Bookworm” [16-19]. And yet other times, the word appears in both its primary definition and its metaphoric sense, as in the third chapter, “Apple” [13-15]. However, what amazes me the most about this technique is not the undoubted sheer effort this must have taken on Hitchings’ part, but the way in which the words chosen for each chapter reveal an intensely personal insight into Johnson’s character. The paragraph or sentence containing the chapter’s word often sheds a brighter light on Johnson the man than the facts contained in the rest of the chapter. The care such a structure and style imply speaks volumes about the passion and enormous respect Hitchings feels for his subject—both Johnson and the Dictionary.
An example from the second chapter, “Amulet,” serves to illustrate the way in which Hitchings uses his structural “gimmick” to great effect. The chapter focuses mostly on Johnson’s childhood and his connection to his birthplace, Lichfield. He begins by explaining why he found it relevant to delve into Johnson’s childhood experiences when traditional biographies on Johnson tend to focus on his adult years: “To understand the significance of the Dictionary as an event in Johnson’s life, we must step back to trace the route by which he arrived at the task” . Hitchings shows how Johnson’s “humble, parochial and by no means propitious”  beginnings served to shape the philosophy, personality, and emotional outlook he would carry with him into his adult years—elements, along with his physical problems, that would fuel his desire to produce something of lasting value (books/writing) and both memorialize and transcend his humble beginnings. The chapter contains the expected standard, traditional, biographical material, but Hitchings then intersperses passages that point to just how directly these early events influenced his creation of the Dictionary:
It is in connection to his childhood illnesses that Hitchings brings in, finally, the word by which the chapter is titled, amulet. “Popular wisdom held that an infant could be cured of its ailments if touched by the monarch” . This idea led Johnson’s parents to take the two-year-old Samuel to London to visit Queen Anne. While he did not come away with a cure for his various ailments, “Johnson wore for the rest of his life the ‘touchpiece’ she gave him—a thin gold amulet bearing on one side an image of the archangel Michael, and on the other that of a ship in full sail. The amulet was his breastplate …” . The very human picture of Johnson that this passage evokes changes the chapter from standard biographical fare or a medical history chart to one that allows readers to glimpse the emotional truth of Johnson’s life.
The final paragraph of the same chapter demonstrates Hitchings’ effective transitional strategy between chapters, which urges readers to continue the treasure hunt. He once again explains why it is important to understand Johnson’s childhood in order to understand the adult lexicographer: “Early experience conditions adult life; childhood is the precinct in which we learn the rituals of maturity. Johnson’s early pain taught him fortitude. It also taught him resilience. But there were other teachers as well” . He goes on to give brief examples of two of those “other teachers,” but the paragraph serves to lead readers almost reflexively to the next two chapters, “Apple” and “Bookworm,” which expand on this theme of “other teachers” in his childhood.
The word used as each chapter's title is also that chapter’s subject focus, allowing readers to understand a particular aspect of Johnson’s life or personality. For instance, the seventh chapter, “To decamp," defined as “to shift the camp; to move off” , examines in some detail Johnson’s first move to London from Lichfield, which had an enormous influence on Johnson's subsequent writing career, leading eventually to the Dictionary. Hitchings also uses this chapter to paint a thorough portrait of London itself during the time Johnson lived there, and also shows how “decamping” became a frequent experience in Johnson's life. However, Hitchings also links these chapter focus words/subjects to key points included in other chapters. In a later chapter, “Entrance”, which recounts the beginnings of the Dictionary undertaking, Hitchings writes that the house he lived in during the time he worked on the Dictionary is “the only one of Johnson’s eighteen London homes to have [survived in the City of London]” , showing just how frequently Johnson “decamped.” This detail, in turn, sheds a significant light on the title of the twice-weekly periodical Rambler that, Hitchings says in the first chapter, “Adventurous,” “was almost entirely written by Johnson, and its title became one of his many sobriquets” . The more I read, the more amazed I became at Hitchings ability to both isolate and constantly intertwine important and relevant details of Johnson’s life.
Aside from the cross-chapter links and “treasure hunting” style of Hitchings’ writing that pulled me in and kept me reading, I found the book was an “easy” read for other reasons. The chapters are designed for the general reader: the longest chapter is ten pages, while some chapters are as short as two pages, the tone and style is accessible and avoids overly specialized vocabulary, and Hitchings keeps quotations, reference citations, and footnotes to a minimum. Having said that, however, the book is not a “lightweight” scholarly reference production. It is an obviously thorough and exhaustively researched publication that can be assigned as a text in a graduate level Eighteenth Century literature or History of the English Language course without reservations, and used without embarrassment as a reference source for scholarship activities. That the book reads so smoothly and “popularly” is a testament to how invisible Hitchings exhaustive research is, making the book a cross-over literary gem.
Ultimately, what Hitchings has produced is a seamless blend of meticulous, relevant research and intriguing, absorbing human interest material. Hitchings claims in the subtitle that Johnson’s Dictionary “defined the world,” which may seem like a hyperbolic statement. He writes in his last chapter that shortly after its publication, the Dictionary became
It had wide-ranging and long-lasting influence on writers, students, scholars, and producers of all dictionaries in English that would succeed Johnson’s. While many, if not most, people who go to “look up” a word in the latest edition of an English or American dictionary take the listings and organization of the definitions for granted, those etymological, usage, and “sense” organizations can be traced back to Johnson and his methodologies. In this book, Hitchings has given readers undoubted evidence of that grandiose claim as well as produced what could be called a definitive portrait of both Johnson and his ultimate legacy, the Dictionary of the English Language. I have already made room on my dictionary/etymology shelf for it, right next to my edition of Johnson’s Dictionary; I can’t help thinking how pleased Johnson would be at that fact.