Samuel Johnson and The Work That Must Be Protected in History

by Tanner Slinkard

Throughout LIN 4660, I and several other students were tasked to archive a classic dictionary – the 1773 edition – made by Samuel Johnson and headed by Dr. Beth Young. The project itself was so far a success and was intriguing for me and many others who partook in this endeavor. However, the work in question, although great, was not as important as Samuel Johnson himself being the mastermind of it. As much its influence and importance is something that I and many others had to protect. Done so through Samuel’s history, and the means by which I and many others archived his data, so as to keep this integral part of world history alive.

To understand why me and others put the best we could into archiving this data. We must first understand who Johnson is and the effort he put into his dictionary. Samuel Johnson and the initial strength of his work can be defined by the opening lines of Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr, Johnson’s Dictionary. The lines are as follows, “ON 15 APRIL 1755 the first great dictionary of English was published” and the dictionary in question “was an audacious attempt to tame his unruly native tongue. In more than 42,000 carefully constructed entries, Johnson had mapped the contours of the language” making Johnson one of the few persons in history to identify the English language into a single documentation (Hitchings 1). Samuel Johnson was able to spend hours of pain and madness to document as many possible words in the English language, making it possible to see the range and reach of the language and what words come from other languages. And became a staple piece of English history. As such having it digitized would not only be beneficial to those willing to learn English. But it is the duty of mankind to keep a piece of historical text like this alive, just in a new form.

There are lots of different aspects of the project that people like me participated in. Some students or contributors would work between the 1755 and 1773 editions of the dictionary. Some students would work on proof checking the dictionary. Some would work on the XML (coding) of said digitized dictionary and some would oversee the finding of scanned pages and make sure hey went with the right definitions on the site. Or students would do a mix of two or all three of these tasks. That is where I come into the equation. As a student of this course, my requirements for this project mostly followed this formula. I am assigned a specific set of words on a list of words categorized from A-Z with their own docs. Let us take for example my work on the most recent “Week 12 Dictionary Task” where I was given the “XML editing” task with words categorized under the letter P. Starting with the word “protectress” and ending with the word “punish,” making a total of 100-200 words at a time. XML editing is a task that involves a mix proofreading the word and going into the XML code and changing it to accurately represent the page/image being compared to in the text. For example, say I am looking through the list of words on Google Docs, and I eventually come across the word “pump.” Having the Administrative Search Page (Dictionary Search) up alongside it I can see the XML text as is with the image next to it. I’m reading the image and comparing it to the XML. As I am reading, I notice two problems with the XML. The foreign word pompe is not highlighted in green to signify it as a foreign word. The name Hiero is not highlighted in the text. The first thing I would do is open the Exide Database, so I am allowed to find and edit the original XML on said website. I find the word “pump” under the 1773 files and open the file. To highlight the foreign word, I find the line of code that has the line pompe and add <Foreign xml: lang=>*insert word*</foreign>. For the character name, I find the line of code. And insert <persName>*insert name*</persName>. This act of inserting these lines of code may seem tedious and simple but it is very important. Having these words linked /highlighted in this way not only diversifies the words and allows the reader to understand what a word means/functions as in the text. But this course also allows students or contributors to hone their skills within the XML coding space. Especially because more and more books of this nature are being converted into these kinds of files.

This project had a very profound effect on me when helping with this project in two ways. The first was recontextualizing the way I see digital assets such as dictionaries in terms of the value in preserving them. I was never really intrigued by the prospect of editing a dictionary initially, because I simply saw it as a simple copy-paste job. But through the important, if excessive act, of editing the XML and proofreading everything. It gives me, and hopefully my fellow students, a more humbled view of this kind of work. It is hard but it is something one should proud of simply due to the time and effort necessary. And I am no different. The second way it changed me was simply due to how many words there are. For example, words like “Chronologically, Safe, Happy” etc are very predictable for something like this. But words I never knew existed kept popping up like “Adjuct, Humdrum, Froise” etc completely threw me for a loop when editing/searching the dictionary. It made me realize just how little I knew of the English language. And as such it made me realize just how much I needed to absorb to truly learn.

To conclude I think this project was an incredibly intriguing and at times entertaining experience that I think everyone interested in English should experience. However, do keep in mind that it can get boring at times. I hope my work can be utilized as a means of helping others learn (setting an example) how and why this work is important.