by Shannon Ganeshram
Shannon Ganeshram, an English major at the University of Central Florida, wrote this reflection for an internship during the Fall 2021 semester.
Samuel Johnson wrote his Dictionary almost completely by himself, a feat for his day and age. He was a prolific English writer with many works under his belt, but through his dictionary, he manages to invoke his own voice in what would be regarded as a “simple” dictionary. While having written other pieces, his Dictionary brings us here today. It was promised to be written in three years but delivered in nine, it became widely well-received.
It is vital to put this dictionary online because it is a piece of history. With around 42,000 entries, it is numerous in definitions. What drew me to this project, and what Johnson considered one of the most essential parts, was the illustrative quotations. They capture the sense of the word beyond what the mere definition suffices. Their usage is exemplified to the reader repeatedly, providing varying context. This is one mere example of many aspects that set Johnson’s Dictionary apart from others at the time. All the hours that I personally put into this project, alongside my peers, feels truly rewarding when you consider the expanse of the text and the standard that it set in its time for other dictionaries to come.
Every week, I would sit down to proofread my assigned terms in the dictionary. It was one of the highlights of my week—nestling into the crook of a chair with a blanket, listening to dark academia playlists that set the mood, to where I imagined myself being in a dimly lit eighteenth-century study. The glow of my laptop screen gave way to the worn, yellowed pages of the dictionary, and how I wish I could have heard the paper crinkling as I turned the page or caught a whisper of its scent. However, if I could do that, not everyone else would be able to. It is better this way, in which we can all access this text and trawl through its pages, maybe placing ourselves wherever we wanted to be, as I did.
Proofreading was especially rewarding. In reading definitions of some words I had never heard before, in awe of words I am familiar with, defined in such a speech that I am unaccustomed to, I enjoyed every second of it. As my fellow bookworms may recall, there was always an appeal to reading the dictionary in its entirety in our younger years. While I definitely have not read this dictionary or any in its entirety, proofreading allowed me to satiate that desire. Meticulously combing over each word, each minuscule letter made me feel like I was wholeheartedly taking in this dictionary for what it is. And it is a remarkable piece of literature.
In taking to my assigned words with a magnifying glass (what I call the zoom feature on my laptop,) I always felt I was missing errors! Week after week, I would only find slight mistakes to make a note of. Wholly, this was a wonderful thing. It meant that I was doing my part and that those that put forth their efforts did their part, too. Logging each word after the next felt as though I was checking off a to-do list, and the action alongside the proofreading proved fruitful.
This dictionary bore the fruits of language tenfold. Across all the weeks of my contributions, I knew that my peers were also picking through those fruits to ensure that they were ripe as could be, to be devoured by the public. My contributions are priceless, as are my peers’. In sitting down each week to scour over paragraphs, sentences, words, letters, I know that it will benefit anyone that chooses to read over this dictionary in any form. They will be getting the version that Johnson intended but will have been modified to better suit the public in its digital setting, available to anyone who wishes to discover it. I believe that the number of words I proofread is close to 2,000, and while that may seem like a small and arbitrary number to some, I know that I did my part to keep this project alive and verify that what I was doing was important. While I am one contributor to a larger project, I am but one word that makes this dictionary whole. My peers fill in the pages beside me as we present ourselves and our work to the world in this collective project.
My work benefited me because it was such a joy to participate in this project. While proofreading many words, I simply also got to read. The illustrative quotations were indeed my favorite part. Some words and definitions would catch me off guard, and it was through the quotes that I came to an understanding. More than this, however, so many of the quotations were astounding. They resonated with a different piece of my soul every time. John Milton’s quotes were my favorite to read by a landslide, and it seems that Johnson favored him too, with the plethora of quotes of his that were included. To Paradise Lost, I go! In doing this work as an English major, with looming job prospects and all that jazz, sometimes I lose sight of why I chose to obtain this degree in the first place. Words have power. They always have, and they always will. I rediscovered literature through those quotations, and I am eager to read more of the authors that I have come across. Reading the definitions of words, seeing them be used, and really delving into the building blocks of language is a gentle reminder to me that the sum of these parts creates a greater whole.
With the end of my final year at the University of Central Florida approaching, taking this time to reflect on this project and its impact on me feels good. I have also learned of its effect on others when I browse through my peers’ replies to our weekly check-ins. It is touching to see this dictionary’s impact across all who were involved, myself included. I hope everyone else appreciates this work that we have done together and feels accomplished and proud. They deserve all the credit that they can get. I would also like to take this moment to thank Dr. Young for her endless support in this endeavor. While this was a remote experience, Dr. Young was never more than an email away and fostered a sense of community that I am very grateful for. We were all never in one space together, but this digital space gave us a remote replication, allowing us to let Johnson’s Dictionary exist in a digital space, too. Thank you so much for allowing me to participate in such a fantastic opportunity and for the takeaways that I have gotten from it!