by Joshua Benedict
Joshua Benedict worked on Johnson’s Dictionary Online while enrolled in LIN 4660 Linguistics and Literature at the University of Central Florida during the Spring 2021 semester.
This past semester in LIN4660 has been a very enjoyable and educational time for me. The class primarily consisted, of course, of finalizing the digitization of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, written by English polemicist, gossip, and all-around (as Hitchings names him) character, Samuel Johnson. The Dictionary was, for over 150 years, the largest and most complete dictionary of the English language (long after the French and Spanish had their own, of course), influencing writers of all genres and time periods from 1755 up beyond the publishing of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933 (other dictionaries existed in the time between these two publications, notably Noah Webster’s, but they were nowhere near as authoritative as Johnson’s). As a lover of primary sources myself, it was honestly incredible to me that the Dictionary hadn’t been previously digitized in an easily-searchable way before this project came along and did us language evolution nerds a service. Having Johnson’s Dictionary online makes it easier than ever for anyone interested in the history of modern English and how it was used in the 18th century to have access to this critical resource.
Most of the first section of the class was devoted to creating XML tags throughout the website’s code, in order to properly display what categories various words within the entries fit into. This process involved lots and lots of Googling, especially when proper nouns rolled around. Johnson didn’t exactly use MLA citation when giving his illustrative quotations, leading to many instances where the best place to start is just by copying the quote and throwing it into Google, hoping the right PDF comes up. Oftentimes this doesn’t work out properly, though. For one thing, Johnson copied many of the quotes from memory. While impressive, this means that some (if not most) of the quotations come with small errors and misquotes, even from the editions and translations Johnson would have been working with at the time. Even when he quotes his own Rambler or his closefriends, most commonly Addison and Steele’s Tatler, one is wont to find typos or even that he attributes the quote to the wrong edition of the Tatler entirely. This isn’t to mention the many, many obscure works that, like the Dictionary until now, have yet to be properly digitized in a way that makes them particularly easy to navigate and check sources on (especially considering the changes in printing convention between Johnson’s time and our own). The most egregious example of this that comes to my mind is the multiple citations of Richard Knolles’s Generall History of the Turkes, first published in 1603. The Historie is a 1600-page tome only easily accessible on a few websites, none of which make it convenient to use (and is a work which is itself the object of several full studies, similar to the much shorter and more convenient works of Herodotus, which of course Johnson does not quote – it would make further research far too easy).
One interesting thing I noticed as we went through the dictionary was the way Johnson cited works for his quotations. Where modern citation standards rigorously catalog every detail of a work’s publication, including even the date one last accessed information, there was no such expectation in Johnson’s day. Oftentimes a quotation from Shakespeare would simply be attributed to Shakes. or even simply the name of the play Johnson simply expected one to know that Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene, and he certainly didn’t have time to tell you the author of every seminal work he referenced – it should be common knowledge! This, I’m sure, worked fine in Johnson’s day, especially since the Dictionary was largely written for and used by writers and readers, who would of course be familiar with the greats of their age and before, and would surely recognize these references without a second thought. In our time, though, it becomes a bit of a problem. While classic literature fans will surely understand the quotations much in the same way Shelley or Wordsworth did, modern linguistics students interested primarily in the words as words in themselves rather than their literary context will not have the same natural advantages (not that I would know, of course). In Johnson’s defense, in his time the study of language and the study of literature were one and the same, but even this doesn’t excuse one of his worst citation practices – leaving the numbers of serially-published works. Johnson references Addison and Steele’s Spectator innumerous times, and sometimes he even tells you which one he’s quoting! It often feels like as one reads a quote from the Spectator, Tatler, or even Johnson’s own Rambler (talk about citogenesis), one can flip a coin to see if Johnson will bother telling you which edition it comes from. Granted, this may not have been such a horrible practice when the goal was simply to provide an example of how a given word could be used, but it makes any research into the quotations much harder, as the haggard student, gaunt from days of attempting to track down who “Lisander” is, desperately plugs every related search term he can think of into Google, hoping, dreaming that one day he’ll find the key, sifting through mountains of pseudonyms and imaginary characters made up by Swift to illustrate a parable (at least, the student assumes that’s who these names are), only to finally reach the climax of the search and realize that in the original text, he was named “Lysander” all along and that Johnson had misquoted once more. He finally breathes a sigh of relief and joyously tags “Lisander” with confidence as a personal name before looking to the next entry and realizing that it, too, is a numberless Spectator reference.
Again, not that I would know.
That’s not to imply that working on this project was a hassle, of course – it was incredibly enjoyable and I learned a lot. In addition to the meta-information gained from Johnson’s approach to dictionary writing, the words themselves obviously contained plenty of information. My favorite bit of knowledge that I’ve added to my fun fact repertoire is that at the time Johnson was writing, the word proboscis referred to the trunk of an elephant. Personally, I’d never heard the term applied to anything larger than a butterfly, so it was incredibly interesting to me to see where the word started. I think that’s what I really love the most about the Samuel Johnson Dictionary. It acts as a snapshot of what our own language looked like in the days after Shakespeare and well after Chaucer, when it had become recognizably modern English and lost most of the antiquated hallmarks of middle English, but is still distant enough from our own time and manner of speech as to be noticeably foreign. Overall I’m very glad I was able to assist with the XML and persName research. I believe that this project will be a vast boon to almost any field that touches this era of time and specifically this version of the English language: the English of a rather grumpy, messy writer and his friends around the mid-18th century. That is to say, of course, one of the most important Englishes in the history of the language.