The Tory lexicographer

Posted by Helen Saturday, April 15, 2006

On April 15, 1755 the following advertisement appeared in the London press:

“A Dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by the best writers. To which are prefixed a History of the Language and a Grammar. By Samuel Johnson A.M.”
Dr Johnson’s great dictionary was published and the best known definition of a lexicographer “a harmless drudge” was first presented to the public.

In his entertaining history of “Dictionary-makers and the dictionaries they made”, entitled Chasing the Sun, Jonathon Green charts the various attempts to imitate the Italians and the French by creating either an English Academy to codify the language or writing a Dictionary for the same purpose; possibly both.

Dr Johnson, too, saw his magisterial work that he had begun in 1745, as a patriotic exercise, writing in the Preface:
“I have devoted this book, the labour of my years, to the honour of my country, that we may no longer yield the palm of philology to the nations of the continent.”
As Mr Green points out, Dr Johnson and his Dictionary were highly regarded by such writers as Voltaire; the high regard was not reciprocated on this side of the Channel.

Johnson had, as he explained, intended to “fix” the language, to offer precise definitions, rules and etymologies. While he succeeded in creating the schema of a dictionary, he realized that a language, particularly the English language cannot be “fixed” or defined for any length of time – it is too fluid, too flexible.

Besides, he felt that trying to “fix” the language actually went against the English concepts of freedom.

On the other hand, he did use the Dictionary, as he used the essays in the contemporaneous Rambler to advance his own High Tory, High Church, moral view of the world through his definitions and quotations (often re-written to suit himself).

The Dictionary was praised by many, particularly David Garrick in verse, assessed soberly by Adam Smith and attacked by prominent Whigs for being Tory. This may have had something to do with Johnson’s definition of a Tory as
“one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England”.
The Whigs, on the other hand, were defined as a “faction”.

Garrick’s rollicking verse displayed the patriotic aspect of the whole enterprise and the Dictionary’s reception:
“Talk of war with a Briton, he’ll boldly advance,
That one English soldier will beat ten of France;
Would we alter the boast from the sword to the pen,
Our odds are still greater, still greater our men …
First Shakespeare and Milton, like gods in the fight,
Have put their whole drama and epick to flight …
And Johnson, well arm’d like a hero of yore,
Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more!”
The forty French refers, naturally, to the French academicians who have been codifying the French language with variable success since the days of Cardinal Richelieu. (The Académie was founded in 1535)

The poetic critique was published in the Public Advertiser and the Gentleman’s Magazine. Can any modern reviewer rival that?


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