The power of words and the significance of the digital humanities

by Brianna Bradley

After working on Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language for a semester, I have gained a better understanding of the power of words and the significance of the digital humanities.

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language

 Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was an English writer and lexicographer who set out to create the first authoritative dictionary of the English language. After nine years and over 42,000 entries, he succeeded. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published on April 15, 1755, and swiftly became the greatest British cultural artifact of the eighteenth century. It was the first English dictionary to utilize illustrative quotations; Johnson referred to the works of famous authors like John Milton, William Shakespeare, and Edmund Spenser to differentiate between the senses of a word. Until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, Johnson’s dictionary was “the dictionary” of the time (Hitchings). Some of the most celebrated poets of all time—Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Keats, William Wordsworth, and Edgar Allan Poe—consulted Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language when writing their works.

Johnson’s Dictionary is worth putting online for a number of reasons. First, the dictionary holds historical significance and is still relevant today. Many of the words used back then remain a part of our vocabulary. For researchers, professors, and students, the dictionary can be a tool for studying the English language and how it has evolved. Because Johnson’s Dictionary was so widely used in the eighteenth century, we can apply the information within its pages to some of the greatest works of literature ever written. Second, the folio editions of the dictionary are enormous and nearly impossible to use. Transcribing the dictionary online increases accessibility; in a couple of clicks, users from anywhere in the world can view Johnson’s definitions. Johnson’s Dictionary Online exists because there is a demand and it’s something that’s never been done before (at least not well).

My Contribution

My work for the first semester of the course primarily comprised of editing the XML code through the Exide database. I was first assigned to the letter P. For each headword in the dictionary beginning with P, I compared the rendered XML to the facsimile page view and looked for any inconsistences. I also added any missing tags to foreign words, language names, person names, and place names. I averaged about 100 words a week according to Dr. Young’s comments on the XML assignments. My highest record for one week was 195 words. By week 6, I ran out of words to tag and was assigned the letter U. I found the XML work to be tedious at first, but it became much easier over time. I believe that my contribution to the project was significant as I made a dent in the amount of work left for the dictionary to be fully completed.

In addition to XML editing, I performed -ography research on person names for the second half of the semester. I was assigned the letter T, which consisted of biblical names, fictional names, and the names of real people. I used Johnson’s Dictionary Online, the Library of Congress Authorities database, and Wikipedia to conduct biographical research. Every name that belonged to a person received a unique ID, and every name that belonged to a biblical or real person linked to basic information about the person. The list of T names started with the initials T. G and ended with the name Tyrone. I created unique IDs for 368 T names. I finished my assignment early, and Dr. Young assigned me the B names (which was fitting because of my name). For the letter B, I started on Baal and ended on Belinda—completing approximately 123 names in the process. This means that I contributed to a grand total of 491 names on the tracking spreadsheet.

Throughout the course, I also acted as a beta-tester for the Johnson’s Dictionary Online website. I noticed when completing my XML assignment that the etymology of many words with Greek origins looked weird. For example, it was not uncommon to find a word with missing Greek letters or absolute garbage. When reviewing the site for the Website Usability Review, I found that there was an issue with the facsimile image preview. This occurred on Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Safari for iPhone. Some of my feedback regarding the website’s design and organization were considered before the site launch. I recommended that the basic contact and website information—including contact, logo, copyright, and social media—be relocated to the bottom center of each page. Moreover, I came up with the idea to feature a “random word” button on the homepage and the suggestion to remove the word of the week tweets from the “News” page.

Why It Matters

I learned a lot from working on the Johnson’s Dictionary Online project. For starters, I can identify and explain the function of dictionary elements, such as the etymology—the ancestry of a word—and the press figure—a number at the bottom of the page that indicates who typeset the page. I didn’t even know who Samuel Johnson was prior to this course, which is a shame because his work on the dictionary influenced literature for over a century after its publication.

Regarding hard skills, I am now experienced with biographical research and XML code (which I will be putting on my resumé). As an English Literature major, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d understand a programming language, much less be able to use it. My work on the project also allowed me to observe historical changes in words and word meanings. For instance, the term “unmanly” wasn’t always synonymous with effeminate qualities. Johnson defined unmanly first as “unbecoming a human being” and second as “unsuitable to a man.” If man refers to human, then the word takes on a new meaning—it may refer to something that is perceived as inhumane rather than weak.

Most importantly, the project gave me the opportunity to put what I’ve learned into practice. I’ve taken other digital humanities classes, but I’ve never participated in an actual digital humanities project before. In this course, I discovered the amount of time and effort that goes into a project of this scale. I spent countless hours adding tags and researching names—and that’s only in terms of one person working on it for a semester. I analyzed the accessibility and design of a website for the first-time last semester, and with the Website Usability Review assignment I was able to apply my knowledge and give direct feedback to Dr. Young. Overall, I’ve felt like my work on Johnson’s Dictionary made a difference. It’s cool to see names that I’ve tagged highlighted or changes that I’ve suggested implemented on the site. Johnson’s Dictionary Online is far from complete, but I’m glad I was here to witness the official launch of the first stage.