Dull Delights Deep in a Dictionary

by Hannah Faith Benton

Samuel Johnson and one of his most famous works are the sole reason this project exists. Throughout his life in the 18th century, Johnson was a distinguished writer who made lasting contributions in various literary outlets from poems to plays. It comes as no surprise that this remarkable writer became the father of A Dictionary of the English Language: the very first dictionary to illustrate the meanings of the words through various quotations from famous works of literature. This work’s significance comes from its massive influence on future works such as Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language and even the Oxford English Dictionary. Just like his successors, Johnson’s work should be immortalized online for anyone to see just how influential this work is.

Throughout my time on this project, I was able to contribute towards the proofreading and editing of over 2,500 words and their corresponding quotations. My tasks were rooted in comparing our transcriptions to actual photos of Johnson’s dictionary to see if ours were accurate to the source material. This meant I spent many —many — hours analyzing sentences, spelling, and punctuation, to ensure everything was as it should be. It was my job to catch something as small as a misplaced comma on top of the tagging system this project has in place to track the people, places, and literary works Johnson cited throughout his work. That tagging system was easy enough to track on our admin pages since everything was color coded unlike the published website. It was easy to scan over sentences quickly and ensure the authors were all tagged correctly since their names were red instead of regular black. This also meant I had to know authors and their works so that I could insert their corresponding tags. Eventually I ended up having a notepad on my laptop dedicated to authors and their specific tags so that when I needed to insert it, it was as easy as ctrl + c and ctrl + v. Sometimes catching these tags can be very confusing. If there was an award for “Most Questions Asked” I definitely won it! Was “Neptune” used to refer to the planet or the Roman God? Was “Malachi” used to refer to an author by that name or the book of the Bible? Sometimes context clues are the only thing you can go off of, but with the language of the 18th century surrounding those words, it can be much more difficult to make those judgment calls.

While it may seem tedious with all this involved—and I cannot disagree that it was—it was as insightful as it was satisfying. Errors that seemed complex, quickly became things I could solve within seconds and see the fruits of my labor just as simultaneously. The editing was something that used to intimidate me with just how many lines of code I would have to sift through just to reach the point I needed. But after months of working on this project, I feel as though I could write entire entries with my eyes closed simply from reading the same XML codes over and over again—a talent I can now insert into my resume that will set me far above my peers thanks to this project.

One of my core memories from my time in this project had to have been the rare occasions where I was able to catch the smallest mistranscriptions that were not as small as they first appeared. A single dot before a word could have been brushed off as an ink error from Johnson, a smudge on the paper, or a blur on the lens of the camera used to take the photo. Turns out that tiny dot was a period following a word in a language that was read from right to left unlike English. Catching that, along with the slightest difference between the Greek kappa and chi in the word “quaff,” was the most rewarding experience for all the effort I put in throughout the semester. My contribution may seem minuscule, but it means the entire world in the grand scheme of making sure Johnson’s work is not only preserved as it should be, but that it is accurate and well represented. With all those words floating around in my brain, I was able to learn so many different words that I wouldn’t have been able to learn about anywhere else since they are no longer in use. Even words that are consistently used currently meant something completely different centuries ago. That alone was mind boggling to me since I couldn’t fathom that “pregnant” could mean anything else, yet here I stand, vastly wrong in that assumption. Even so, the easter eggs that seem to be hidden throughout the dictionary were extremely entertaining to find deep into the night. Johnson, despite being from the 18th century, was very funny and his small hidden gems made me chuckle many times. Even the creator of the dictionary found this task “dull” and made it well known in the definition of that very word.

In a single semester I became a problem solver; I became detail-oriented; I became someone who wasn’t scared to say “I don’t know, but let me find out.” I couldn’t have asked to be a part of more rewarding experience than the one I found here. This is a project that I will always be able to say I contributed to and and prove it through various lines of code I wrote which is something not many people can say they can do. My initials are rooted in this project as is my passion for its success.