My Woes in Editing Samuel Johnson’s Words

by Dariannie Merced-Calderon

Samuel Johnson was an 18th century English writer, lexicographer, and literary figure who made significant contributions to English literature and language. Johnson’s most prominent contribution was his dictionary titled “A Dictionary of the English Language.” At a time where English was not standardized, Johnson’s dictionary was the most comprehensive English dictionary at the time and was the standard English dictionary for every English-speaking country during the 18th and 19 centuries. Because of this, its influence on the development of the English language is monumental. In a more contemporary light, Johnson’s dictionary still holds relevance today s it was written around the time important United States foundational legal documents, like the Constitution, were written. This is important because scholars and lawyers can refer to the dictionary to decipher those legal documents and their intended meaning. Beyond legal documents, the dictionary is useful for transcribing 18th and 19th century literature for modern consumption.

As aforementioned, Johnson’s dictionary had a profound impact on the development of the English language and continues to importance when transcribing documents from the past. Digitizing the dictionary allows for three important things. First, it makes the dictionary accessible. Anyone with a computer can access and use the dictionary, and, with features such as the “Cite Selected Word”feature, digitization will make the dictionary a useful tool for scholars, students, and researchers. Accessibility promotes inclusion and helps other people create their ideas and projects. Digitization also helps preserve the dictionary. A document so important to the English language ought to be preserved in a secure way that can bypass the deterioration that physical documents suffer. Finally, due to its accessibility and preservation, the digital Johnson’s dictionary can continue to be studied and appreciated for years.

My first couple of weeks on the project I did proofreading, which entailed comparing transcriptions that previous members of the project wrote with their original images from Johnson’s dictionary. I was assigned a specific set of words––usually 80 or so in the beginning–– that usually fell under a subsection of a letter in the dictionary. As the weeks progressed, I would do more words. I would read every word on the transcription and make sure the words, the spelling, the punctuation, etc. matched. If I noticed any errors, I would make not of it and type on the spreadsheet that corresponded with the letter I was working on. Most problems I encountered were missing person, place, or etymology tags, which meant I had to learn their XML tag before I had learned any XML. My goal was to keep my notes brief and successfully communicate the problem, so learning the XML shorthand was helpful. The notes I would leave would then get worked on by another member of the project.

I must admit that the beginning had a learning curve that made me frustrated. Learning the basics like how to search a word, make it bigger to compare it to the image, and navigate the Google Sheets page that everyone uses to record their progress, took no time at all. It was learning which people, places, and words needed tags. I referred a lot to the “Dictionary Basics” page on the Johnson’s dictionary Webcourses page. I avoided using Yellowdig, the online community forum for Johnson’s dictionary project, because I felt intimidated by asking questions about things that seemed obvious to everyone else. This made it so that completing the words took several days, as I wanted to be thorough.

After I had just gotten the hang of proofreading, I learned the basics of XML and started doing XML editing. The first week started with about 135 words and by the final week of editing I had been doing close to 300 words a week. As I got the hang of XML, the first couple of weeks were like the first weeks of proofreading; long and tedious. At first, I used the same method I used during proofreading. I was still learning what words needed tags and which did not and now I had to also learn how to fix them using eXide. Luckily, I finally got over my fear of Yellowdig and began to use it, which proved very helpful as responses were prompt. At first, I learned how to make the administrative search page for the dictionary show me the XML for the words I searched, and I used this to copy the XML code from the 1755 version of a word, which usually had the correction I needed for the 1773 version and paste it into eXide. This method failed me when I ran into words where both versions of a word had the same mistake. I turned to Yellowdig for these instances and got by for a couple weeks, but the downside was that completing my assignments took several days.

By week 9, I was on the verge of falling behind and knew I had to change my method. At this point I knew how to tag things without pasting them, except for the etymology tag, which I fully learned in week 14. I began to go through all the words, make note of the ones that needed fixing, and went back to and fixed them in eXide after I had completed proofreading all the words. This method made things go a lot quicker and smoother and I cut my work time in half. After this, I had a lot more fun working on the project. My contributions to the project benefitted it as the publishing date for the 1773 version approached in April 2023. My revisions ensured the 1773 version was (mostly) free of transcription errors and all locations, authors, people, and etymology tags were in place for a smooth launch. However, I argue the project has benefitted me more than I have benefitted it.

As an English major, technology and coding seem like the antithesis of what I should be learning. Yet, since I have started college, learning how to code or program has been ferociously imposed on me. If not by my family, then by the blinding fact that jobs in tech have blown up, while an English degree is synonymous with ‘professional barista.’ However, I knew coding was not for me after sitting in on an Intro to Programming course in the fall of 2022 and having a breakdown after trying to write ‘hello world’ in Python. I promptly dropped the course and Computer Science as my minor. I did not give up hope, however. I changed my minor to Digital Humanities hoping it could combine my love of English, while keeping up with the digital world. After taking an Intro to Digital Humanities course online, I was eager and curious to see what working on a real project would like like––would it truly combine my interests? Or is the barrier to entry for coding too high for me? Joining the Johnson’s Dictionary project has proven I am capable of not only coding, but of working with technology to create something that will contribute to academia. Finally, I have been rejuvenated with optimism regarding my major and future––I now know I have more options other than barista!