by Justin Smith
Justin Smith 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.
Working on the Johnson’s Dictionary Online project, I learned how passion could make the most tedious work enjoyable and turn staring into pages of coding into something you look forward to.
Essentially, Samuel Johnson is the Michael Jordan of English lexicographers. As the author of A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, from then on, he was your favorite dictionary writer’s favorite dictionary writer.
Johnson, however, was a rather unknown writer until with the help of a peer, he’d published a poem and a play by 1749. Still, these weren’t met with nearly the same acclaim that he would achieve with his 1750 to 1752 series of essays in his series The Rambler. Only during the Rambler years did Johnson truly amass a following, but already he thought of his work as something that owed a responsibility to his readers and to the language in which he wrote it. In his final addition of the Rambler, Johnson expressed his hopes that the series may have in some way left some positive lasting impact on the English language, giving “something to the harmony of its cadence” (Damrosch). It’d be admirable to say “little did he know” Johnson would go on to benefit the English language in an infinitely invaluable way, but something about his confidence and his self-proclaimed position as a moralist illustrate that if anyone had the passion to undertake a dictionary of this size and depth, it was Johnson.
While Johnson’s contributions to the English-speaking world via the Dictionary of the English Language aren’t exactly innumerable, there are at least 42,773 of them in the first edition. Each entry not only gives us definitions and senses of these words, but they’re given in a way that grab a reader’s attention. They’re definitions that stick, because they’re written by Johnson, in that elusive and intriguing “Johnsonese” he was so well known for. Taking this dictionary, that in form, process, and style, was the inspiration for the OED and Webster’s dictionaries that would come afterward and making it accessible to the public only makes sense, in any way you put it. After all, a physical copy, even of a facsimile, would cost anyone a couple hundred to a thousand dollars, and maybe a pair of arms from having to hold and flip through the 20+ pound collection. It also provides a unique benefit to United States constitutional law, as the definitions for Johnson’s words could be used as a modern basis for understanding the English used by our founding fathers.
It’s been inspiring to work on the Johnson dictionary site. Whenever I had the chance to humble brag about it, honestly, I would. But it was much less about me, it was more about the chance that I was getting to do work on behalf of one of the greatest lexicographers in modern history. My pride in working on this project came from the fact that this is one of the most important texts to the English language ever. That being said, some people could see my part on the site as small, maybe minuscule, but really, I see it as being just another person helping along in the tedious work to create such a masterpiece, like the people Johnson had alongside him in constructing his first edition.
During my time working on the Dictionary, my role was that of an XML editor, maybe just shy of a coder. I stared at rendered XML entries and facsimile images tirelessly, wading through Johnson’s words for something that needed to be tagged as a person or place name, or needed tagging as any number of foreign languages Johnson used in his sometimes encyclopedic style entries. My efforts will hopefully it easier for anyone searching through the dictionary to find mention of any specific places, authors, fictional characters, or foreign language terms (most often Latin, especially in reference to judicial and law type words).
My work benefited me in lots of ways. Obviously, it taught me a little bit of XML literacy and how it worked as a whole. I’m sure even with this little bit of knowledge I can prove that even though I’m not an XML master, I can catch on quick to something entirely new to me.
I’ve also gotten up close and personal with this text that changed the English language! I learned how dictionaries work and the anatomy of them. I’ve learned how this specific dictionary has influenced English lexicography for centuries to come, as I’ve already talked about quite a bit. And something that only someone who’s worked so closely for as long as I or my other classmates have with this dictionary would have noticed, is how much words change and develop over time. Granted, Johnson wasn’t the most consistent speller, but the spelling of words wasn’t the only thing that change, as they’ve gained new senses, more or less usage, and have developed into different parts of speech as they were outlined by Johnson. One word that I marked for Word of the Week, “imminence,” was a great learning experience for me, seeing as Johnson claimed it was in little use back in his day. However, the word now enjoys plenty of usage currently, albeit with a different sense than Johnson described it with. That’s just one of the ways in which I’ve been able to learn about how language changes over time, no matter how influential the text that defined it was. Having my Word of the Week selected also benefited my ego quite a bit.
Really, to sum it up, I learned to see a dictionary, something that is far too often seen as something serious, or even boring, as something that breathed life into the English language. And despite my tedious work as an XML editor on this project, I was able to turn something that at face value, may seem a bit milquetoast, to something incredibly gratifying and something I’m proud to have been a part of. This project, all in all, taught me an important lesson in perspective, and I couldn’t thank Mr. Samuel Johnson, or Dr. Young or UCF enough for it.