Happy to have worn many hats

by Nolan Grad

Nolan Grad, a graduate student at the University of Regina, worked on Johnson’s Dictionary Online throughout spring and summer of 2021.

For the past 20 years, North American taste has surely been shaped by the reinvention and the preservation of the most appealing and nostalgic elements of eras gone by. In popular media, it is not only the quality of writing and acting that has brought about the wild success of series such as Netflix’s Stranger Things and The Queen’s Gambit, but it is equally the result of the beautiful representation of the 1980s and 1950s aesthetic which finds itself in the set design and the costume of each series respectively. It is undoubtedly true that a great many of us love our throwbacks.

For myself, I began 2021 by throwing it further back than usual. In early February, I was welcomed on board to the team of researchers across North America who are in the process of digitizing Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary of the English language. As a result, a nascent interest in 18th century literature has come to seize my attention thanks to the titanic oeuvres and epic poems of the poets, translators, philosophers, scientists, clergymen and critics that I have discovered.

Through my time spent assisting with different aspects of the digitization process, I have begun to grasp the eternal charm and the immensity of Johnson’s work as well as the significance of other prominent works of his era. While compiling a dictionary may not be an obvious endeavour that allows for the expression of personality and humour, Johnson’s spirit clearly shines through in his work. My encounters with clever and humorous definitions, strange and beautiful words, and interesting etymological particularities (personal favourites include “lunch”, “anatiferous”, and “pedler”) have resulted in a tremendous enjoyment of my time spent looking at the English language through Johnson’s eyes.

Moreover, I have been inspired by the team itself whose creativity and plain hard work have created a true collaborative spirit which welcomes the contributions of many professionals, students, and volunteers who operate under the banner of a multiplicity of disciplines. I consider myself an organized person, but the masterwork ballet of organization choreographed by those at the helm of this project has exposed me to a level of international and interdisciplinary coordination that I have never experienced. Observing the inner workings of a project of this scale, I will undoubtedly carry forward strategies in project management concerning the division of labour and the necessity of creativity and versatility when it comes to ensuring the steady advance towards a grand goal. In other words, I am happy to have worn many hats over the previous months, one of programmer, Ancient Greek scholar, and amanuensis.

As Samuel Johnson’s dedication to scholarship is carried into the modern era by a new generation of harmless drudges, I am thankful to have absorbed lessons in organization, collaboration, and the importance of personality in writing. It delights me to know that the realization of this project will expose many others to the joy that I have found in Johnson’s work which is as colourful as it is fascinating.