The work was tedious . . . but still worthwhile

by Jack Scheidhauer

Jack Scheidhauer, an English major at the University of Central Florida, began working on this project as a volunteer in early 2020. He wrote this reflection for LIN 4660 Linguistics and Literature during the Spring 2021 semester.

Why is Johnson’s Dictionary worth putting online?

The importance of having Johnson’s dictionary online lies in having the historical meanings of words widely available. As one of the course objectives states: “observe historical changes in words and word meanings.” Words begin to expand in meaning once we begin to become aware of their senses and how they were used in the past. Johnson’s Dictionary might be outdated and small when compared to the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary. However, its importance lies in its contributions to etymology and Johnson’s idiosyncrasies when writing the dictionary.

What did you contribute (i.e. specifically what work did you do) and how did your contributions benefit the project?

 My contributions for this project mainly consisted of XML Markup and researching the individuals Johnson cited in his dictionary quotations. The first eight weeks of the course were spent on XML markup which is the process in which the work in progress online version of the dictionary was reviewed and edited so that it matched the facsimile version. Then the XML (the online version of the dictionary) was searched for any words that needed tags (foreign words, language names, names of people, locations on Earth) and then tagged so that the search function for the dictionary could sort these tags when searching. I think I did a better job at contributing to this part of the dictionary, as, to me, it was not as tedious as the names research and it was much easier to work on for long periods of time, also it was nice to learn new words while doing this!

The last four weeks of the project were spent on the personography research which is researching the people that are referenced in one way or another in Johnson’s dictionary. The process of doing this included first seeing if the person was fictional or not, if fictional, then no further research was done. If the person was not fictional, then the name was searched in the library of congress and authenticated. This process could be difficult and tedious as the names researched could be names that were very common—researching Socrates would cause no problems, however, King James would cause much frustration due to the non-specificity of the name (which King James??). I did not do as much work on the name research as I would have liked to. I did think it was interesting, but unfortunately, I got caught up with classes at the end of the semester and lost time for name research.

The contributions I made benefited the project in that the work I did was for the most part tedious and might have been a bit annoying although I do interpret the work as being important to make the dictionary as usable and accessible as possible. And I hope it helped for the project to be moved to the state that it is in now (closer to being finished). I don’t think of my contributions having been very difficult to do, as they mostly consisted of being detail-oriented and exact to make sure that there were no issues in the dictionary entries, and the second half of my contributions consisted of researching people, which is definitely frustrating but not necessarily difficult. But still—but still—the work has helped to make the dictionary more readable which is important, as to make sure that the readers are not getting the wrong information nor that they are reading information that is messy and all over the place due to mistakes in the XML.

How did your work benefit you (i.e., what did you learn that matters to you)?

The work on the Samuel Johnson Dictionary benefited me in a variety of different ways. First, I learned more about dictionaries and the elements that make them up. It does not sound very interesting, or I guess a dictionary seems relatively simple but incredibly tedious to create which is probably correct. However, seeing what goes into a dictionary and spending a lot of time with one definitely taught me to see how important how they are. Beyond just figuring out what an unknown word means—which is still incredibly important—they also keep track of all the senses in which a word has been used historically, and without this, and without someone as crazy enough as Johnson to go through Shakespeare, Milton, and all the other major English writers looking for all the uses of the words in the English language, then all the future uses of the language would become less rich and our writing would begin to suffer as a side-effect.

Second, learning more about digital humanities was definitely interesting as someone who did not previously have any interest in working in them. It was nice to get out of my comfort zone and to see where contemporary studies in the humanities are headed. I would not have guessed how much work goes into a project like this—how complicated it is and how long the process takes. Its beneficial to see the kind of work that goes into moving a classic reference text onto the internet and the amount of utility it can provide with any added digital tools.

Last, learning more about Dr. Johnson and learning new words while reading the dictionary! Taking this class pushed me to read Samuel Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson and I do not think it too much to say that Dr. Johnson was an interesting person, perhaps one of the most. I would assume that the main reason that people today would want to read Johnson’s dictionary is for his witty way of describing things that would be too informal to put into contemporary dictionaries, which is probably evidence of how unique and compelling his voice and style were and still are. I like to think that Johnson would have liked for his dictionary to have been put online—even though I do not think that he would have cared for the internet (partially because he lived in the eighteenth century, partially because he was a classicist and they usually do not like the internet)—It does not matter though as the dictionary is definitely worth having online and being as accessible as possible!