Johnson’s Dictionary is about more than looking up words

by Bernard King

Before I begin on my reflection of this project, I want to discuss the original writer/researcher of Johnson’s Dictionary, Samuel Johnson himself. Born in Lichfield, England in 1709, Johnson experienced physical and mental health issues since he was an infant. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis at an early age. He also had to content with mental health issues, though never officially diagnosed at the time, of course, he experienced symptoms of possible clinical depression, as well as Tourette’s Syndrome. Despite all of this, he managed to leave us with what many consider to be one of the most influential works in English Literature. This reflection will examine why the Johnson’s Dictionary’s legacy is worth preserving online, what I managed to contribute and how those contributions benefited the project overall.

One of the reasons that many continue chronicle and preserve the Johnson’s Dictionary is because the story of how the book even got made is compelling in and of itself. Johnson suffered numerous setbacks in his life. He had due to drop out of Oxford University due to his father not being able to make tuition payments, something that modern-day college students can appreciate. Throughout the 1730s and mid-1740s, he struggled to find real success as a writer until the year 1746, when he was hired by a publishing company to write a dictionary. Johnson boasted that he could “produce a dictionary on the scale of the great Italian and French dictionaries in just three years”, proving that, among other things, Johnson had a very adventurous spirit. In his book Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, Henry Hitchings describes Johnson’s adventurous work ethic:

“His schemes of work suggest at once a schoolboy’s hunger for self-improvement and a schoolboy’s slender acquaintance with the realities of what can actually be achieved. Yet if Johnson’s self-flagellating self-encouragement is striking, so are his working habits—hardly those of a diligent professional. ‘Whoever thinks of going to bed before twelve o’clock is a scoundrel,’ he was wont to claim. His nights were as often spent in jovial company as in the prison house of learning.”

Henry Hitchings

After nine years of struggle and hardship, the dictionary was completed. The fact that it took nine years to complete was almost a blessing, as it is seen to be one of the most authoritative dictionaries ever compiled. So much so, that it was simply referred to as “the dictionary” for the literary community of the nineteenth century. The scope, scale and origins of the work have been written about for centuries and will continue to be written to be about long after we’re gone. It’s simply not just a dictionary. To quote Robert Burchfield:

“In the whole tradition of English language and literature the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank is that of Dr Johnson. Unlike other dictionaries, Johnson’s is a work of literature.”

qtd. in Hitchings

My contributions to the project really weren’t all that significant. When I originally started the semester, I just needed three additional credits to graduate. I was delighted to find out about the Johnson’s Dictionary project. I was able to kill two birds with one stone: get the additional three credits and strengthen my editing muscles. I knew that pouring over 180+ entries per week would be daunting, but I knew I was up to it. I found that sometimes the process of scanning each individual definition for grammatical errors was more time-consuming than I originally thought. I eventually decided to open iTunes and use my play-list creating skills to create the right music to edit by. That made things a lot easier. It also made me realize why editing is a full-time job for some people. You must know what to look for and have the concentration to find various grammatical and punctuation errors. If anything, this job taught me that I’d be much valuable to any organization as a writer, rather than an editor.

I also got some much needed and much valued exposure to XML (Extensible Markup Language). We were notified that XML editing was needed and I volunteered knowing how valuable a resume builder it would be. If anything, I learned the importance of being able to identify tags in XML and got a feel for how to utilize them fix certain errors. I don’t consider myself an expert by any means, but I have an idea of how maneuver through an XML environment, and hopefully, that skill will be useful to someone.

As I was reading the material, I actually found myself relating somewhat to Johnson’s plight. This is my final year of college. It took me a very long time to get to this point. Many years in fact. In the last two weeks, I’ve managed to secure employment and finally walk away from a career that I’ve been sick of for a long, long time. During the 9 years that it took for Johnson to complete his seminal work, he had to deal with health, mental and financial issues they same way I have during my long, arduous journey to getting a bachelor’s degree. The reason that I am sitting here writing this article, and the fact that 18th Century English Literature has dictionary that many have considered to be a one-of-a-kind source of information that deserves to be preserved over the centuries, is because of this one simple fact: he never gave up. And neither did I.

In conclusion, I’d like to state that this paper is the final assignment of my college career. I’m getting somewhat emotional writing these words. As I stated before, the journey that Johnson went on in order to complete his seminal work is not one all that different from my college career. When most people think of 18th Century English authors, they think of old white men sitting at a desk and writing boring stuff by candlelight. And that was true to a certain extent, but Johnson’s Dictionary is about so much more than just looking up words. I believe that one reason that people are so enamored by this dictionary is the fact that people see some degree of themselves when they learn of both Johnson and his plight. The idea behind studying any literature from any time period is not to study and analyze words, but to understand certain periods in history for the purpose of being better.