More than just a regular dictionary

by Charlotte Bergholz

Charlotte Bergholz worked on Johnson’s Dictionary Online while enrolled in LIN 4660 Linguistics and Literature at the University of Central Florida during the Spring 2021 semester.

As I was looking to sign up for the final Linguistics class I needed to complete my Linguistics minor, I initially didn’t sign up for LIN 4660. I thought to myself, what would I do working on a dictionary? And how does it relate to me and my goals? After some thinking, I decided to sign up for the class anyway because it sounded much more interesting than Philosophy of Language. But I am grateful that I did it, because it was the best choice I could have made. This class and working on Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary did exactly what I hoped it would do – it opened the door to the world of linguistics and the digital humanities. Since my only experiences in linguistics were the classes I took for my minor, I had no idea what to expect. By working on this project, I have been able to learn a lot about the importance of dictionaries, the digital humanities, and had a glimpse in working in the field of linguistics.

Before working on this project, I had heard of Samuel Johnson but I didn’t really know what he did that was so important. I knew that he was from England, was probably a writer, and was alive in the 1700s but nothing more. Through working on this project, I learned that he wrote one of the most influential pieces of literature – A Dictionary of the English Language. This dictionary was more than just a regular dictionary like the ones we have today because people attributed it as an important piece of literature. The dictionary was unlike any other before it. Johnson put all of his passion into it, and his personality is revealed throughout the dictionary with illustrative quotations that he specifically chose and comments he wrote on certain terms. The Dictionary was very influential and impacted many writers such as George Eliot, the Brontës, and Oscar Wilde. Its reign lasted 150 years until other dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary came into publication.

As I first started learning about the significance of the Dictionary, I was very surprised to learn that it was not easily available online like Oxford’s and Webster’s dictionaries are. For something with this much cultural and literary impact, and with all of the resources made available because of the internet, I expected it to have a website like other dictionaries. It appears that since their publication, Oxford and Webster have stolen dictionary popularity because Johnson’s dictionary is not well known anymore. Still, even though over 250 years have passed since its publication, many people could still benefit from having free access to the Dictionary. I am glad that this project is helping bring the Dictionary back to life so the general public can learn more about Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. 

For a project as big as this, there is a lot to do. I was lucky enough to be one of the Student Researchers that worked on editing XML coding for certain words, and researching people mentioned in the dictionary. Working on the XML was very exciting and gave me a glimpse into the complexities of coding, building websites, and digital humanities projects as a whole.  Because of the vast majority of words within the Dictionary, it’s easy to miss certain things and make simple mistakes. That is when I stepped in and made simple edits or reported any issues that may have appeared. I mostly tagged the names of languages, places, and people that appeared in word entries to search them later. After that exciting glimpse into computational linguistics, I worked on researching and identifying people that we tagged that were mentioned in the Dictionary.

Researching and identifying people was an interesting task, yet it could also get tedious. It was interesting to learn about new people and see how important they were to Johnson and the illustrative quotations for the word. At times, it was tedious because finding the right person, especially with Greek or Roman names, can be very difficult. There was a very well-known Roman politician whose full name was Marcus Porcius Cato. It turns out that more than one person has that name. Luckily, since many Greeks and Romans tended to have the same names, they had nicknames, so I was able to discover that the original quote was referencing Cato the Younger instead of Cato the Elder. Besides Greek and Roman people, I learned that royals also tended to give people the same names. One person that was really difficult to identify was Chilperic I King of the Franks. I took close to an hour researching who this person was and cross referencing with many sources in order to identify him. There were many other royals that made my research more difficult, such as Nicholas Carew, a Baron from the Manor of Haccombe, and all of the kings named Charles. People from the same family trees yet different time periods had the same names, which made my task much more difficult. I had to make sure to look at the source of the original quote in order to find some clues as to who the right person would be. But even then, sometimes finding the original source was difficult because Johnson wrote some illustrative quotations from memory!

I had an issue with one illustrative quotation in the word “weep” where it mentions a Darius weeping over his army. I searched and I searched, and I came to the conclusion that Johnson put the wrong name. I discovered that in the original quotation from Wake’s Preparation for Death, it says “Persian King” instead of “Darius.” While Darius was a Persian king, also known as Darius the Great, it was actually his successor Xerxes I, or Xerxes the Great, that wept over his army. It was an interesting discovery, and while it made the process more difficult, it was an interesting challenge.

Overall, as someone who wants to pursue a career in the field of Linguistics, working on putting Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary online was a very exciting opportunity. It was with the help of this project that I discovered that I really want to continue working in linguistics. At the same time that I was working on this project, I was also working on an interdisciplinary research paper on how the internet has affected our language. As a frequent user of the internet, it is always surprising and interesting to see new slang terms created every day. Working on the Dictionary allowed me to see the different terms that were used during Johnson’s time, and it was interesting to compare which words we still use, which ones we don’t, and which meanings have changed. But who knows, maybe with the new availability of Johnson’s Dictionary, old words that have gone out of fashion will come back into fashion. Either way, I am very grateful to have been able to be a part of this project and I am excited to see other people learn and appreciate Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.