Johnson is a man of necessary words

by Kianna Solano

Kianna Solano, a History major at the University of Central Florida, wrote this reflection for an independent study course during the Fall 2021 semester.

Samuel Johnson is an ambitious man if I’ve ever heard of one. In fact, I would
call him tempestuous as well, a word that he would define with a short definition and
about a million examples. I’ve learned over the past few months that Johnson is a man
of necessary words. No more, and no less. That’s one of the greatest things about
Johnson in my opinion; he is eccentric yet thorough in his attempts to compile the first
comprehensive English Dictionary. There’s an infamous little story that I love which
really exemplifies his tenacity. It begins with The French Academy’s dictionary, which
took 40 years and 40 men working, and Johnson’s bet that he could finish the English
equivalent by himself in only 3 years. He took this as an opportunity to brag
(obnoxiously) about the Englishman’s worth compared to the Frenchman. Of course,
while Johnson said it would take 3 years for a single man to make Johnson’s Dictionary,
it actually took 9 years and a few assistants as well. Despite the faulty estimate, it was
still an overwhelming feat for anyone to take on and even more overwhelming to
accomplish. His Dictionary was finalized in the 1700s and it was a…bust, for lack of a
better word. It was well received by academics and respectable people, but respect
doesn’t sustain a life under capitalism. Johnson’s Magnum Opus simply didn’t produce
as much profit as he had hoped after the better part of a decade, with Johnson splitting
his time between the Dictionary and the many side projects that he used as financial
support in the meantime.
And despite the fact that the dictionary was inaccessible for the average family at
the time, it still has stood the test of time as a revolutionary volume. It is important for
the context that Johnson lived his life in, and it also says loads about the development
of English as it progressed into the recognizable form it is today. Because of that,
Johnson’s Dictionary Online is beyond worthy as a project that attempts to place
Johnson’s words (all of them) online for an audience to access easily. As the Dictionary
itself fades away the way that all pages and manuscripts eventually do, I think it’s
important to move it to a more permanent home that can stand the test of time.

My Work at Johnson’s Dictionary

For Johnson’s work to be placed online, it must be placed online accurately. This is the job of a boatload of committed students and volunteers, and I was excited to be one of them! From the very beginning of this Fall semester, I have worked in Johnson’s Dictionary Online as a proofreader. In this position, I was assigned a certain section of entries with the intention of cross-referencing the transcribed text that was on the ‘Johnson’s Dictionary Online’ website with the respective entries within Johnson’s original folio from 1755. Every single week, I committed to 9 hours of proofreading. That entailed pulling up a seemingly ancient, definitely oversized, folio online as the first step. Then, I would squint at the words Johnson had written about two and a half centuries ago, keeping my eyes bouncing back and forth between the typed 2021 text and the pre-Victorian dictionary pages.
Since my job was to make sure the digital text online was transcribed correctly, I oftentimes took too much time to make sure that it was transcribed exactly correctly so that Johnson’s Dictionary Online maintained the integrity found in the original manuscript. Those were my intentions from the very beginning of the project, and yet, I was still somehow surprised when I took longer than the average estimates! It’s a bit funny looking back, but I was definitely insecure at the time. I was initially assigned a sizable portion of the D’s and the E’s, and managed to chip away at a medium-size dent in the D’s before the end of the Fall semester. Specifically, I started at entry number 12117 [f1755-dragonish-1.xml] and ended at entry number 12280 [f1755-drugster-1.xml] for a total of about 163 entries total, spread over 16 weeks. While that seems like a huge number to me, it’s much lower than my goals for the semester whenever I first
began. In fact, I had hoped to be completely done with my assigned section by this time
and in the middle of making decent headway into another chunk of words. That being
said, I think that there’s something relevant about my inexperience with this kind of
project. That’s not mentioning my difficulties with focus and reading comprehension, too!
Honestly, I completely underestimated the mental commitment to the work. I got plenty
of warnings about the time management aspect of it, and I aced that spectacularly, but
the brainpower it took was something to be reckoned with.

Johnson’s Impact on Me

On a similar note, working on Johnson’s Dictionary Online had an unexpected effect on my understanding of my studies. I learned quite a bit about myself, and it was much more valuable than I would have thought at the beginning of this semester. I learned hands-on skills about combatting my motivational difficulties as I drudged through entry after boring entry at times. I learned about my true interests. I learned about my speed difficulties, and the way that I process high volume productions before going stone-cold. Above all, I learned about self-advocacy and self-compassion. These were skills I learned hands-on by working on the dictionary, even if Johnson himself did not comment on this in the dictionary.

What Johnson specifically did give me, however, is an increased appreciation for literacy and linguistics! Just today, I watched a lecture on how cuneiform was deciphered without the Rosetta Stone, and I understood some of the terminology! I also gained a better understanding of English history, surprisingly enough, as I submerged myself in the context of Johnson’s world in order to understand his perspective and writings.

Unfortunately, my life was riddled with personal tragedies. . . . Essentially, every aspect of my life that could have been affected negatively was hit with a curveball early on in the semester. . . . I have a new appreciation for stability, and surprisingly, Johnson’s Dictionary was a project that was able to provide me with that.

And yet, Johnson’s Dictionary was a wonderful thing to do even in distressing moments. Once I found a system that worked for me, the mindfulness needed for a task was not only necessary, but incredibly beneficial as well. Slowly underlining a sentence at a time… taking slow glances between two screens… and throwing every neuron I had into staying focused was the ticket to a bit of order in the midst of chaos. Johnson’s language became strangely comforting.

Overall, Johnson was a wonderfully eccentric companion for this rocky Fall semester. His word choice was oftentimes funky, and his examples were always relevant, but the organization was a lovely anchor to a chaotic time.