Useful for a future law student

by Kathleen Elaine Johnson

Kathleen Elaine Johnson 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.

Samuel Johnson was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature through his poetry, plays, essays, literary analyses, and well know dictionary. He is most notable as a lexicographer, creating A Dictionary of the English Language which was published in 1755. The commissioned project took eight years to complete with the help of six people. During those years of work Johnson had defined over 40,000 entries; completed with a word, the definition of said word, and an illustrative quote that gave attention to nuances of the word’s meaning. The combination of these made the dictionary structure revolutionary at the time. Johnson lived for 75 years, born September 18th, 1709, and died December 13th, 1784. During this time, he accomplished many things, but all pale in comparison to his momentous work in recording the language of the time period.

Johnson’s dictionary is worth putting online for many reasons, one being that after the dictionary’s release it promptly became the most influential dictionary in Britain. That influence metastasized beyond Britain by the 19th century, reaching America and English-speaking colonies who made good use of the dictionary. Those studying linguistics, or even those with a casual interest in the history of the English language deserve to have access to such an influential piece of text. It would be detrimental to their studies not to have swift access to it. Another reason the dictionary is worth the effort is because it can help us understand the precise words written by the founding generation of the United States. To be able to cite the dictionary that the people of the time used will make the context more precise and understandable to the people of today. Scholars, philosophers, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and those with just a passing fancy should have access to the legendary dictionary, so digitizing it is worth all the effort put forth.

I contributed a small portion to this project by editing the extensible markup language (XML). This contribution benefited the dictionary by properly storing, transporting, and sharing data within the website. Each week I would edit at least one hundred words. I committed myself to this process for six weeks which resulted in a compiled six hundred edited words. I edited a majority of the “u/v” section of the dictionary, since the letter u was interchangeable with the letter v during Johnson’s era. I found myself in a crevice of words beginning with “un-”. The meaning of the words was predictable with the preface, but I still found myself fascinated by the nuance and context of the period they came from. One of the more interesting words I edited was ultramundane. According to Johnson’s dictionary it means, “Being beyond the world,” It is not exactly what most would expect when seeing a word with mundane in it. While mundane does reference something earthly, it is not typically how people use the word today. Today the word is used in a context of all things dull. This is just an example on how language has shifted so greatly throughout the years.

Working with the XML benefited the online dictionary by fixing any overlooked errors made by those who did the programing. It also made the website more friendly and dictionary accurate as I had to fix any transcription errors by checking the facsimile when doing XML. This work also assisted in properly categorizing words by their etymology attributes and names whether they be a person or place name. There were specific XML tags for all of them.

An additional way I contributed to this digital humanities project was by researching and writing short biographies of historical figures and fictional/mythical characters mentioned in the illustrative quotes. For this portion of the work, I was only assigned thirty words per week. I did these biographies for four weeks, completing an estimated number of one hundred and twenty. This taxing work was beneficial to the online dictionary because it helped establish a personography file in the dictionary database. One of the more interesting biographies I researched during my work was that of Malchus. He was a biblical figure who participated in the arrest of Jesus, which resulted in the disciple Peter cutting his ear off with a sword. Jesus, who took a particular offense to that action, performed one of his last recorded miracles and healed the injured man.

Moreover, I helped to beta-test the website and make it more user friendly. I searched through all the links available on multiple devices to see they were accessible when clicked. I then checked the aesthetics of the website. I also inspected the functionality of the website, looking for any errors in the searching functions. Fortunately, Johnson’s Dictionary Online was extremely functional by the time I was requested to beta-test it, so I hardly had any complaint to report. Some of the flaws I found were only minor errors. A website link accidentally pasted to the website more than once, or a small aesthetic flaw. The only large error I saw was when searching a word, the facsimile image belatedly appears after having been looking at the definition for a few seconds instead of it being an immediate response. My work in this area benefited the online dictionary in a way more noticeable to those browsing the website, making it perfectly maneuverable and easily usable. 

This work benefited me greatly, helping me understand the elements of a digital humanities project. This was a novel experience for me, helping to enhance a classical reference text with digital tools for the average person to have proper access to.  As an illustration of these newfound digital skills, this unique project helped me understand the basics of XML when I was previously familiar with hypertext markup language (HTML) only. The coursework allowed me to learn how similar the two programming languages are, but also their differences. HTML displays data and describes a structure of a webpage while XML stores and transfers data, HTML is predefined whereas XML is a standard language that defines other languages.  It was a pleasant surprise that I broadened my computer science knowledge while in a linguistics class. The digital benefits of this work aside, this class formally introduced me to Johnson’s lauded dictionary. The dictionary set the blueprint for all those that would come after it, including dictionaries that I am familiar with from the current time period. The structural combination of words, definitions, and illustrative quotations were unprecedented at the time. Johnson was also the first lexicographer to include quotes from women writers, setting the stage for a turning of values towards women.

A more personal benefit to being introduced to this dictionary comes from my future goals. I aspire to attend a law school, and as previously stated U.S. Supreme Court Justices occasionally use this dictionary to explore precise meanings of words from the Founding generation. This project is only an introduction to Johnson’s dictionary, but I have an inkling that I will become more familiar with the text as my education continues.