A Semester of Sammy J. and His Wonderful Words

by Isabella Ciraco

What can I say about my experience being a part of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary Project Team? Well, take a seat, because there’s a lot to say! It isn’t all about clicking back and forth a million times between the administrative page and spreadsheet, and occasionally Exide…although, it was a good chunk of it! It is about being involved in an intricate and immense digital humanities project where every single person is essential and makes a difference, no matter their workload.

Samuel Johnson, who I have, for some reason, nicknamed Sammy J. (no, seriously, I used that nickname in place of the course title), was an English man alive during the 1700s, who was extremely passionate and dedicated, to say the least. He devoted most of his life to creating his Dictionary and persevered through having to create mundane writings just to be financially stable and having to undergo heartbreaking losses of those he loved. He was a hardworking, honest, and very witty man that lets his personality show through his creation of the Dictionary. Even though he wasn’t the most deadline driven, he unknowingly changed many of our lives by demonstrating how never giving up on something you are proud of will truly pay off (even if it is a couple hundred years later).

For me, it is quite easy to understand why Johnson’s Dictionary is important to put online: it pays homage to Samuel Johnson and allows his hard work to be accessible through a digital platform. I remember asking my friend one day if she had ever heard of “Johnson’s Dictionary.” Not surprisingly, she shook her head no, to which I replied, “What about Webster’s?” Of course, she had heard of that one, which motivated me further to work on this project. This project not only taught me skills of editing, proofreading, and working with XML, but also of the significance of community and the powerfulness of making history timeless. The history of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is being kept alive through all of our hard work, typos and all!

One of the biggest aspects of my participation in this project was XML editing. When I attended the XML workshop for the first time at the beginning of the semester, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the fancy codes and heap of /, <, >, =, etc. piling my screen. I am no computer scientist, so I thought it was going to take a lot of practice. However, the wonderful and oh-so-helpful Dr. Beth Young paved the way for my successful understanding of XML editing through her brief lesson on it. Her files on Google Docs were also a beneficial aid I used when I did not know if something qualified as a person, place, origin, etc. Logging into the VPN was something I thought was going to be difficult but it turned out to be the simplest part. Once I started XML editing, I had such a fun time doing it! At times I felt like a genius hacker (which was a bit scary), but one who was simply fixing errors. My biggest fear was accidentally writing something completely incorrect and not knowing how to put it back, but that’s where Dr. Young and fellow classmates came in. Luckily, I have never made that type of mistake, and am glad that Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary Project team is so supportive and willing to offer a lending hand.

Last semester, I was a volunteer for the project and was given a bit of light proofreading, which provided me with the necessary eye-skills for the following semester. It also gave me a nice routine, where I would set up a quiet time in my week, turn on my laptop, grab a snack, start proofreading. Sometimes, I would read out the transcriptions in a (albeit poor) British accent because the language and syntax were anything but what I was used to. After a few weeks of proofreading, I felt like, in some weird way, I was getting to know Samuel Johnson, as if he was a friend, and his tone and style were becoming quite prominent.

This semester, I dove deeper into the world of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and learned so many amazing and, many times, fascinating words. It would be a dishonor to not only Samuel Johnson, but to all of us, not to include some of the most memorable words I have learned. One of my favorites has to be “purloin,” which simply means “to steal,” but will always remind me of the cat-like Pokemon whose species is Purrloin. Another word that is worth mentioning is “unthrone,” which is basically a synonym for “dethrone,” but clearly better! Lastly, another word that stuck with me is “intermundane,” which is the space between two worlds. I think this word gives off a mystical and beautiful tone. All of these words (and many, many more) can be found by navigating to the Dictionary tab on Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary website!

For the final few weeks of this semester, my tasks went by much faster, as we were doing a bit of revision of what we have done so far. I was able to the brief online history of each word via the spreadsheets and proofread them again to ensure that everything was perfect. On a more honest note, I was surprised to see that there were very few errors at all with the words I was assigned the last few weeks. There were minimal typos and most of my work consisted of adding “personography” tags to a few of the transcriptions. To add this, I clicked on the “XML” tab for the 1755 version of the word on the administrative page and copied the section where the personography was placed and pasted it into the Exide database of the 1773 version of the transcription. The lack of errors made me realize just how committed everyone was to guaranteeing the highest quality for Johnson’s Dictionary.

Aside from completing my week dictionary tasks, I also decided to have a bit of fun while using Yellowdig for the first time. When I chose my word of the week (wotw), I usually navigated to the drawing tool on the site to let my creativity shine. Drawing on a laptop isn’t easiest feat, but I liked to think that my drawings were a semi-accurate visual aid for the word I chose. Yellowdig also offered me a way to get to know my teammates better. Although the project was entirely remote, using the discussions via Yellowdig allowed me to “converse” with everyone, ask questions, provide answers, react, laugh, and have a sense of community.

I will admit, some nights I close my eyes and simply see letters or XML tags jumbled in my mind, with “<placename>” and “<persName>” occasionally taking a swim in my brain at times, but it is all worth it. Working on this project has proved to be immensely rewarding and has illuminated the beauty of preserving history. I am grateful that I was offered this opportunity, and pleased that I decided to take it. Next semester is my final semester before I graduate, and there is no doubt that I will be returning to this project once more!