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Sunday, April 17, 2005


LI readers should immediately stop reading this fumbling attempt at a post and go to the TLS review (by Thomas Keymor) of Henry Hitchings book on Dr. Johnson’s dictionary. Johnson is, along with Hazlett and Orwell, every freelancer’s hero. But the Dictionary sets him apart, in that space reserved for the more inscrutable sons of God, mysterious in their energies and inimitable in their successes:

“The body of the Dictionary performs the troubled themes of the preface with striking virtuosity. This great work does its primary job as a standard dictionary with constant assurance, and of course part of Johnson’s achievement is to have produced, in less than a decade and with only routine assistance from six amanuenses, a feat that would not be superseded until the OED at last came to fruition in 1928, after the labours of huge teams over seventy-one years.”

It is as if one man built one of the cathedrals. Keymor emphasizes Johnson’s shifting sense of the object of the dictionary – at the beginning, it was to fix the pronunciation and meanings of words in English, but it evolved into a record of the meanings and pronunciations, with an enlarged sense of the sheer ephemerality of the inside of a language – the multitudinous and contingent transformations of its units – that, by some miracle, did not effect the outward unity of the language. Keymor again:

"Johnson’s reputation is that of a bossy prescriptivist, and these are the terms in which his enterprise began. In The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, issued in 1747 to drum up patronage and subscriptions, he writes serenely of the language as an entity amenable to scientific description, and thus, by extension, regulation. His work in progress is one “by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed . . . by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened”. Yet even in this inaugural document there lurks a countervailing sense of language as recalcitrant and wild, or as human and fallen, the work “of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived”. The overall confidence of the Plan has much to do with the predispositions of the person to whom it was addressed, Lord Chesterfield, whom Hitchings rightly calls a “linguistic conservative”, and whose casual exploitation of Johnson’s efforts led in time to one of the Dictionary’s most famously perverse definitions. Here a patron is “a wretch who supports with insolence”, and Johnson sharpened the barb in a personal letter: “Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?”. In the preface to the Dictionary, written on the eve of publication, Johnson’s pose is that of the sadder and wiser man. As Hitchings makes clear, practical difficulties of implementation had conditioned his now jaundiced, indeed tragic, sense of the inherent limits of his endeavour, but one should not underestimate the artful ironic patterning at work in the path he traces from innocence to experience. As the Plan quietly intimates, he had always sensed the blocks and binds that he now comprehends to the full, and in the preface he articulates this sense with the piercing lucidity of a mind honed by years of struggle with fine distinctions of meaning. Language is boundless, disorderly, perplexed, uncertain and, above all, “variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it”. No feature of language can be rendered marmoreal, and in this sense even the most extensive and rigorous effort of lexicography can get no further than heroic defeat – a perception beautifully crystallized when Johnson writes (reworking his verse account, from The Vanity of Human Wishes, of the helpless rage of Xerxes at the Hellespont) that “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strengths”. The lexicographer reverts to poetry here, for the most part with grim insistence on corruption and decadence, but not without a counterstrain of relish, a sense that instability can equally be imagined as cornucopian energy and teeming life. When he adds that “no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away”, the sense of rising sap is no less important than the autumnal decay. Amidst the unflinching gloom, one of Johnson’s favourite terms for language and meaning is “exuberant”: “growing with superfluous shoots; overabundant; superfluously plenteous; luxuriant”.

LI thinks we will do another post on Johnson, just for the hell of it.

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