by Sarai Duque
Sarai Duque 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.
Who is Samuel Johnson?
Samuel Johnson was a writer in the mid-1700s who created “the first great dictionary of English” (per Henry Hitchings). Johnson created this dictionary in an attempt to structure his wild native language. His dictionary became known as “The Dictionary” for over 150 years until the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Dictionary were created. Johnson’s dictionary is incredibly detailed and set the stage for dictionaries created after it. He made sure to include the language origin, part of speech, multiple definitions (if needed), and examples of entries being used in phrases and quotes. He even took care to create different entries for homonyms instead of including them in the same entry with a new definition. Johnson seems to have defined nearly every word imaginable in his magnificent dictionary. One can find just about any word they can think of, and ones they didn’t even know existed. Johnson even included definitions for the letters of the alphabet and articles (i.e. a, an, the).
After learning about who Johnson was as a person, it is quite surprising that he accomplished this great feat. Henry Hitchings, who wrote Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, notes that while Samuel Johnson was a “tirelessly productive author,” he considered himself to be “disgracefully lazy”. He didn’t have the habits of a “diligent professional,” for example, he would stay up extremely late. But Johnson strived for self-improvement. He had detailed schedules to help him be more productive, and while it took longer than he had planned, Johnson finished the first volume of his dictionary.
This project of digitizing Johnson’s dictionary and creating a searchable online version is so important because this dictionary is still a valuable resource today. It was the most widely used dictionary for a century and a half, so researchers often refer to it today in order to interpret writing from great authors, such as Emerson and Dickens. The Founding Fathers of our nation even relied on this dictionary when creating our founding documents, the Supreme Court still references it to this day. Due to its relevancy, an online version would make it easier for anyone at any point in time to have access to Johnson’s Dictionary, including schools and teachers.
My contribution to this project was mainly done in two parts. One part was in cleaning up/editing some of the coding of the dictionary entries and the second was in name research. In the first part, my classmates and I were assigned a letter of the alphabet to comb through all of the entries and see if there were any missing “tags”. These tags are used for organizational purposes on the backside. These tags would show up as a color-coded word on the site. If we saw a word that was not colored, but should be, we would go into the coding and add the tag. The 5 main tags we added were for words in a foreign language, names of foreign languages, people’s names, places, and notes. I was assigned the letter V. Each week I would comb through around 100 words in the V section of Johnson’s dictionary and look for missing tags. For example, if I saw “Rome” in the definition or a quote under an entry that was not colored, I would know this word was missing a tag. I would then go to the coding, add the missing tag, make sure it was entered correctly and saved by checking to see if the color changed, and then I would move onto the next entry.
The name tag in particular allowed for all of the names referenced in the entire dictionary to get organized together and this allowed us to do our second area of work. This second area of work that my classmates and I were assigned, was to do research on these names in Johnson’s Dictionary. For this area, I was assigned the letter P. I would go into a Google Sheets spreadsheet, where all of the names mentioned in the Dictionary were listed. I would scroll down to the P section and one by one begin researching the names. Each person’s process varied a bit, but we all had the same assignment and specific things to look for. First, we would have to identify if the name belonged to a real person or a fictional, mythological, or otherwise “fake” person. If the name did not belong to a real person, who walked this Earth at some point, we would make a note next to their name labeling them as fictional, mythological, etc. If they were a real person, then we would have to go to a different spreadsheet and provide basic information about them; full name, birth/death year, Library of Congress link (if applicable), Wikipedia link (if applicable), and create a “Unique ID” for them in the format of “person-LastnameFirstname”. Through doing this, I learned a lot about different people both fictional/mythological and real. One example is about a German man in history who had many titles and professions. One of these was “Alchemist.” The man’s last name was Von Hohenheim. I realized that he is the real-life person that Hohenheim, from the anime “Fullmetal Alchemist,” is based on. Throughout my research, I made little connections like this and enjoyed learning about mythological creatures that are less known. I also realized that Johnson very often quotes the Bible, as many of the people from the Bible have multiple references.
These areas of work are very important to the project. Tag “clean up,” allowed for us to be able to launch the official Samuel Johnson Dictionary website by April 15th, 2021, and our name research will be organized and available to the public for use once complete.
Why I love Johnson’s Dictionary…
I learned so much by working on this project. Learning about Samuel Johnson alone was incredibly interesting to me. To think that one single man in the 1700s sat down and wrote a whole dictionary by himself is amazing, but the fact that he did it so well is mind-blowing and inspiring. The concept kind of makes me laugh when I think about how people nowadays will say, “I don’t even know what people did before technology.” Johnson’s answer is the best one, “I wrote a dictionary.” Though Johnson was a self-proclaimed lazy person, he had an eye for detail. With the number of quotes and people referenced in his dictionary, I can only imagine how much research he must have done and how much knowledge he gained from this project he took on. The dictionary is something that is often overlooked and not necessarily considered some “great literary work,” but it is just that. Johnson’s dedication to this project greatly impacted our language forever. He created structure and a tool to help writers everywhere. Johnson helped standardize our language and created a reference guide for civilians and writers alike.
Through working on this project, I gained new skills and learned many random bits of information. Most of the information has to do with historical people and writings, which isn’t very useful day to day, but it is something that I find quite interesting. I also learned more about the parts of a dictionary and their names. I learned a bit about how to search through the Library of Congress and honed in my researching skills by doing name research. The skill that I found most interesting, that I most likely wouldn’t have learned had I not worked on this project, was learning how to code using XML. While this isn’t a super complicated coding language, it is still a skill I had to learn, understand, and execute. It is most exciting that my edits and additions to the coding contributed to such an incredible project that will now be on the internet forever.