Word history really is the history of practically everything

by John Rose

John Rose, a History major at the University of Central Florida, wrote this reflection for an independent study course during the Fall 2021 semester.

The following is a short refection on my time during the Fall semester, 2021, at the University of Central Florida as a proofreader with the Johnson’s Dictionary Online Project. Johnson and his dictionary are considered. My contributions to the project and the benefits it has afforded me complete the personal essay. The three main ideas that run through the piece are: history, the love of learning, and gratitude to those who are willing to share what they love.

Johnson and His Dictionary

Samuel Johnson was an eighteenth century English lexicographer. But it is really a shame just to call Johnson a lexicographer. He contributed a great deal more to the English language than just defining words. He established a high mark in dictionary composition and aim. Johnson, according to Lynch, believed, “… words gained their meaning from their use …” To that end, Johnson included and drew his definitions from usages found in “the wild,” from notable works of the world of English literature, science, philosophy, and more. This set Johnson’s work apart from other dictionary ventures, like the Académie Française, which fabricated their own usage examples and if French authors of the past were not in concurrence, then those of old must bend to the correctness of the Académie. Johnson was true to the self-evident maxim that dictionaries give known usages, but context defines a word. Johnson relied on context and revealed it to his readers. This is the heart of lexicography.

Johnson defined another quality of good lexicography: sense definitions. Johnson, unlike the authors of earlier dictionaries, sought to properly define the many senses of words. It takes effort and energy to unravel the myriad twists and convolutions that make the variety of senses of some English words. By way of example, consider Randle Cotgrave’s early English dictionary of 1611 and the word “discern.” Cotgrave offers, “Discerned, or distinguished; parted, severed, sundered” (spellings modernized for clarity). Johnson gives: two verbs, five senses, and eight quotations. His two entries fill nearly half of one column, whereas Cotgrave’s entry is not a full one and half lines. Johnson’s method allows the reader to develop a fuller sense of how the word has actually been used. This takes the lexicographical work out of the realm of the quasi-theoretical and places it firmly in the practical. Johnson readers could, with few exceptions, be assured that the word they were consulting was one that had been or currently was in use by English writers.

The details outlined above are strong and practical reasons why Johnson’s Dictionary is worthy of consideration in the twenty-first century and why it is worthy of the effort required to digitize its content. If the English language is worthy of study, then so too is its first lexicographic masterwork.

My Contribution

My contribution to the project has been as a proofreader. Proofing the digital text against the scanned images of the printed dictionary pages has the obvious utility of catching and corrected errors. However, the work is remarkably more nuanced than might first be imagined.

The digital project seeks to preserve the look and flavor of the printed dictionary by presenting the online entries as visually equal to the original as possible. Obvious printer mistakes and certain period fonts, like the long “s” and the oft seen connected letters called ligatures are not reproduced. Period spellings, punctuation (or the lack thereof), and emphasis are just a few among the many details found in the digital copy that have their twin on the original pages of Johnson’s work. It takes a careful eye to spot some errors. One example pertained to the presence of a period. The digital entry for “diffused” has “[from diffuse.]” as the word’s etymology, however, the original does not have a period before the last bracket. If there is no period in the original, there should not be one in the online entry. The details make the difference between an accurate representation and an inaccurate one.

To some this may seem the height of boredom and gross quibbling over minor details of no importance, but to the careful proofreader: that is our stock-in-trade. Another interesting example of careful proofing was found in the word “dike.” The etymology has “die” as the Saxon word from which “dike” came. The original text here seems to be dic rather than “die.” I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary to see if it could shed some light of the matter. The OED usually has rather extensive etymological entries – much more thorough than Johnson, besides being clearly legible. The consultation revealed that the Saxon word is dic and not “die.” Now this does not mean that Johnson actually has dic. This simply means that that is the correct word. What we are after is what is actually on Johnson’s page. Referencing from the OED confirms that Johnson’s page could have dic. The final test of course is the visual one – what is printed on the page. The scan is not crisp, so it is hard to reach a definitive answer. Close inspection of the actual printed page might easily reveal the truth, but alas, that is not available for inspection by the proofers. In an interesting turn of events, in the course of writing this reflection, I found a far more crisp scan of the 1755 edition we are proofing. This scan shows the entry in question to clearly be dic. Again, this is not the same scan used in the project, so it is not absolute proof that our volume has dic, but the probability is very high, indeed.

Another area of contribution, and this is where I think I may be most helpful to the project, is in Greek etymology. Many English words can readily be traced to their Greek roots, especially by way of Latin and French (a Romance language after all). I have been able to bring several years of Greek lexicographic and grammar research to the project, which has helped to unravel some snarky etymologies. One of note is for “dipetalous.” Johnson says this word comes from two Greek roots: δις and, in the proofing scan, an unrecognizable word. Here I started with what I guessed the root might be and began a search in the Greek lexicon records available to me. My conclusion was that the proper root was πέτᾰλον referring to leaves and leaf shapes. This agreed with what the root seemed to be visually and with the definition Johnson presented. In the same turn of events mentioned earlier, the same newly found clear scan confirms with a very high probability, that the Greek root is πέτᾰλον. Once again, a clear scan makes all the difference!

The two categories of contribution I have offered represent the two best areas in which I could help the project: meticulousness and language skills. I suppose, funnily enough, those two skills are really the basis for accurate and worthwhile lexicographic work; (by the by, according to the OED, funnily is a proper adverbial form of the noun funny). Details, details, details; that is what set Johnson’s work apart from earlier, less comprehensive and useful dictionaries.


The greatest benefits to me have been at least three-fold. The first is obvious: exposure to digital proofing of an online database of a historical dictionary. It would be inaccurate to write that this was my first exposure to detail-oriented proofing. But it is the first time that I have ever proofed an online database for an English dictionary. Though I have learned some basic aspects of the database, most of my learning in this first category has been about the visual inspection of Johnson’s dictionary as a scanned file. Interestingly, this has not been my first exposure Johnson’s work as a scanned file. Perhaps I am the only student on the team that already had a scanned copy of Johnson’s dictionary saved on their computers, albeit the 1785 revision, before we began our work. I downloaded my copy several years ago when I was doing research for biblical word-studies.

The second benefit is a choice one: the opportunity to do close research on an interesting subject, though practically any detailed research is interesting to me. I suppose I could accurately be considered a philomath, φῐλομαθής in the Greek. This word combines the idea of love or dearness, φίλος and the act of learning, μάθησις – one who loves learning. I have long held that word history really is the history of practically everything. How is anything communicated and passed on to future generations but by words in some form? Vocabulary comes from the need to describe some thing or some phenomenon in the life of the communicators. Viola! Language is born. Thus, the history of the world is found in dictionaries.

The third benefit is the opportunity the work with Dr. Young and Dr. French. The finest professors I have had at UCF. This is not a trite statement. Their expertise in their fields of study is obvious and graciously and generously given to their students. It is said of child psychologist, Margaret McFarland (mentor of Fred Rogers, by the way), when asked about teaching she proclaimed that good teaching is showing one’s students what you love. That sentiment is surely apt in describing Drs. Young and French. Their enthusiasm for their subjects shine through their classes and I, for one, have surely appreciated that.

Much more could be said of the benefits afforded me from this work, but the above will suffice. The opportunity to work on this project has been a real boon to my college experience and I am very happy to say that I have the great fortune of continuing with the work next semester as well. I would unreservedly recommend the sort of experience this internship has given me to any college student inclined to try it.