Johnson’s World (And Ours!)

by Katherine Weiss

Samuel Johnson and His Dictionary of the English Language

As Spring 2023 comes to a close, so does my second semester as a Samuel Johnson Dictionary Project team member. In the Fall, I served as a volunteer, dipping my toes into Johnson’s world as I proofread and quotation-matched. In the Spring, I became a full-fledged team member, earning credit for my work proofreading and XML editing through a course entitled Linguistics and Literature. To properly contextualize my work on the Samuel Johnson Dictionary Project, it is first important to understand who Johnson was and why his work is so important.

Samuel Johnson was born in September 1709 to a family of words and average means. His father was a bookseller, and Johnson’s time in the store as a youth cultivated his interest in words. I particularly enjoy Johnson’s story because it follows Booker’s overcoming the monster plot. Johnson faced nothing but trials and tribulations on his journey to publish one of the most influential dictionaries of all time. His family faced debt, he struggled with his mental health, and he even had to mourn the loss of his wife. However, Johnson persevered, and although his dictionary was published six years after the promised deadline, he still accomplished an incredible feat.

Johnson was an important man, and so was his dictionary. I firmly believe in the accessibility of knowledge, and preserving Johnson’s dictionary in an online format is imperative to that mission. Johnson was committed to defining as much English vocabulary as possible and trying to make the English used by the greatest writers at the time accessible to those without knowledge of the intricacies of literature. Although the dictionary was too large and expensive to be accessible to the average individual at the time, I am still impressed by his work. I believe it is our responsibility to use today’s modern tools to preserve his dictionary and continue to use it to serve individuals outside of the general realm of academia.

My Work As a Digital Lexicography Research Assistant

While serving as a Samuel Johnson Dictionary Project team member this semester, I primarily proofread and handled XML editing on the 1773 edition of Johnson’s dictionary in preparation for its inaugural online publishing on April 15th. There are roughly 42,000 entries in Johnson’s Dictionary, and I proofread approximately 350 entries and edited the XML of approximately a whopping 2,300 entries this semester. That means I have read and personally edited approximately 5.5 percent of Johnson’s Dictionary. Although that may not seem like a large number, I am immensely proud of the work I have contributed to the project.

As a proofreader at the beginning of the semester, I was assigned entries from the 1773 edition of Johnson’s Dictionary. My job was to cross-reference what was soon to be posted online with Johnson’s original text. Computers did the original transcriptions on the online editions, and as such, there were often small errors that only humans could catch. Sometimes it was a missing special character, a simple misspelling, or a misplaced tag. Sometimes there were more substantive errors, like whole senses missing from a definition.

Nevertheless, computers are not always perfect, and that is why proofreading is so important to the project. There is very little that beats the old-fashioned human eye. Although I was only a proofreader for a brief time, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed immersing myself in Johnson’s world and the language they used at the time. I also found the work to be relaxing, albeit extremely detail oriented. It was nice to be able to sit down, turn on some nice music, and read.

As much as I loved proofreading, I loved being an XML editor more. During the first half of the semester, I did general XML editing on the 1773 edition of Johnson’s dictionary. The purpose of XML editing is to correct the mistakes found by proofreaders on the website’s backend by actually editing the code. It was a daunting task because, prior to taking this course, I had no experience in XML editing. I had to learn XML from scratch. While there was a learning curve, I caught on quickly, and before I knew it, I was beginning my first XML assignment. My very first word XML editing was shark. And, no, not the sea animal, although a large amount of the work I did XML editing was in the letter ‘S,’ and I encountered a plethora of sea animals. Instead, shark, in this case, was defined as “To pick up hastily or slily,” which I found very interesting because I had never heard shark used in that way! There were many words I found during my work on the project that surprised me like shark did.

While I became more experienced in XML editing, the due date for publishing the 1773 version drew nearer. By the second half of the semester, my fellow classmates and I became assigned “fixers,” meaning we should go back through past XML editors’ and proofreaders’ work for a second time and fix any mistakes that may have gotten missed in the first passthrough. The work was less difficult because many of the mistakes had been corrected, but our number of assigned words doubled to meet the deadline for publication in time. I found it weirdly thrilling despite the extra workload. I knew there was still significant work to be done, but it thrilling being so close to the deadline, and it is even more exciting now that the work I had been doing all semester has been officially published online!

XML editing was a mixture of proofreading and coding, and I found it extremely engaging. While I enjoyed proofreading, it was almost a bit frustrating to find mistakes and correct them immediately. It was nice to see the changes I made in such a concrete way.

My work on the Samuel Johnson Dictionary Project has benefited me in many ways. As an English Literature major, I spend much of my time analyzing novels and constructing meaning through words rather than studying the words themselves. This project was a great opportunity to learn about the history of the English language and the evolution of words and their definitions. Secondly, the digital humanities are becoming increasingly relevant in English, and hands-on experience on a digital humanities project is invaluable. I hope to use my knowledge working on the project in future courses and post-graduate work. Lastly, the project was a lot of fun! As college students, we often forget to find joy in our coursework, which was never the case with this project. It was always engaging without being stressful; it was informational without being overwhelming. It was a nice break from the monotony of my literature courses, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have contributed to the project. I have enjoyed the my time on the Samuel Johnson Dictionary Project and am immensely proud of my contributions.