A surprising enterprise into classic English literature

by Al Whitt

Al Whitt, an English major at the University of Central Florida, wrote this reflection for an internship during the Fall 2021 semester.

Working on Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary Online was a surprising enterprise into classic English literature at the perfect time for me. I’ve never been particularly interested in English literature, as I lumped it all into the same general, boring category of classic material covered in elementary and middle school. However, I was lucky enough to take a class on English Restoration literature in the same semester I started working on the online dictionary. Discovering Milton’s Paradise Lost, getting example after example of Dryden’s skill with rhyming couplets, then opening the page files of the original 1755 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary to see those same writers quoted by him, both the class and this project couldn’t have come to my attention at a better time. Working on Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary Online has left me with an interest in delving further into classic English literature, and the strong desire to read through all of Paradise Lost.

Samuel Johnson was the first dictionary to use an example sentence for each word, and split each word it its many different possible definitions dependent on context. Before, words were defined as from a dictionary, or given single word descriptions. Johnson’s dictionary used classic English literature, many quotes coming from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dryden’s poetry, and William Shakespeare’s classic plays, as example sentences to show how the word is correctly used. Every English dictionary after Samuel Johnson’s followed his example, and that is the main reason it is worth putting online. In order to understand why dictionaries today are formatted and arranged the way they are, we first need to understand the origin. And that’s where Samuel Johnson and his groundbreaking dictionary comes in.

I worked on the 1755 edition’s incorrectly parsed pages. Basically, every page needed to be separated into single words with their definitions so that when a word is searched for on Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary Online the original page excerpt containing only that word and its definition will pop up. I went letter by letter through every page that failed to automatically do so, making a TIFF file for each word. It wasn’t hard work, but it was definitely time consuming as there was different quality controlled elements I had to pay attention to. First, I needed to make sure I kept to 300dpi, or pixels per inch, in order to preserve the original scan’s resolution quality. Then, I had to make sure each of the TIFF files were at least 1174 pixels wide, so that the word excerpts would format uniformly on the website. Finally, and the most tedious aspect of my work, I had to crop each file as close to the specific definition I was working on. This doesn’t seem hard at first glance, but considering the printed words’ tilt on each page, there was almost always unrelated words in each crop. I had to choose between cutting out the tops of relevant letters, or letting stray markings creep into the edges of each TIFF file. In this case, I was instructed to pay more care to getting the entire word and definition, and tolerate stray markings from surrounding text. While using the Samuel Johnson Dictionary Online, it is certainly possible to only read the transcribed text, and never see my cropped photos. However, having the option to see the original text relevant to only the word being searched is huge. It adds to the ambiance of the Online Dictionary, and creates a level of authenticity. It also gives modern users a chance to see exactly what the original users of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary saw, and to put themselves into that classical mindset.

Doing this work benefited me in ways I didn’t even expect. I assumed I would learn some wacky words, and get to read interesting excerpts from classic English literature. I definitely learned the original, or maybe just old, versions of some words, and words that haven’t been used since they were written down. And thanks to the Samuel Johnson’s dictionary twitter account, I can keep up with new words as they’re chosen to be featured. But surprisingly enough, I also managed to brush up on my old English and calligraphy. I’d seen the long s with a line on the left in school work before, and often confused it with an f. Not to mention the ash, ae ligature, and ethel, oe ligature, that I’d previously seen used to the point where I understood how to pronounce them, but I didn’t understand where they were from. Previously, I thought they were Greek letters, or old abandoned English letters. It is nice to finally understand that they are Saxon alphabet characters, and to learn more of them like thorn and eth. It also makes pronouncing those words much more intuitive.

Also, I was able to improve my photo editing, and general Photoshop skills. Learning how to speed up my editing process with hotkey commands was definitely a lifesaver, and now I’ll always have the knowledge in my back pocket. Learning how to move elements and layers from one document to another was also a big undertaking. I didn’t want to copy the file or image, and risk losing the original resolution. In the end, I had to outline each word with its definition, being careful not to crop any letters out, and create new layers with copy. After, I would duplicate the new layer onto a separate file already set up with 300dpi and a width of 1174 pixels. Finally, I would crop as close to the definition as I could possibly get without losing any letter, then save the image as a TIFF file. Each file was named after it’s edition year, the word itself, and number of times the same word was defined using the XML file names.

I really enjoyed working on Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary Online this semester, and I’m more excited to continue working on it next semester! I’m really proud to have finished my goal of getting through all of the 1755 edition’s incorrectly parsed pages, and hope to finish all of the 1773 edition’s pages next spring. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to work on this project with Dr. Young and Dr. Giroux, and strongly encourage anyone interested in classic English literature, Samuel Johnson and his dictionary, or learning about XML files to join the project.