Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary

by Henry Hitchings

Hardcover, 2005




Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2005)


By 1700, France and Italy already had dictionaries of their own, and it became a matter of national pride that England should rival them. Dr Johnson rose to the challenge, turning over the garret of his London home to the creation of his Dictionary. He imagined it would take three years. Eight years later it was finally published, full of idiosyncrasies, but complete nevertheless. It would become the most important British cultural monument of the eighteenth century. This is the story of Johnson's attempt to define each and every word. In wonderfully engaging chapters, Hitchings describes Johnson's adventure - his ambition and vision, his moments of despair, the mistakes he made along the way and his ultimate triumph.

User reviews

LibraryThing member TadAD
I think the subtitle of this book indulges in a bit of hyperbole, confusing an extraordinary volume with an extraordinary story about that volume. Though Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was a monumental effort requiring nine years of work and which, in many ways, became the standard against which all other English dictionaries were compared or contrasted, the story of its production is rather ordinary. Johnson set out to define the entire English language as it was actually used; he was not wealthy and had to find sponsors; he worked hard for nine years; the dictionary was finally published and successful.

This is the difficulty against which Hitchings has to struggle—how to keep interest alive in the reader through 259 pages. He manages, for the most part, by discussing the dictionary, itself, rather than the story of the dictionary. He shows how the definitions help the reader understand 18th century Britain. He talks about how Johnson's personal beliefs about Church and State color how he presents words. He shows how Johnson exacted revenge against those he disliked in his definitions of words like "patron". He even illustrates the relevance of the dictionary to our times, recounting that the Supreme Court has referenced it in the last decade in order to understand the Framers' intentions when they chose words for the U.S. Constitution.

At times he fails to maintain the interest. Mr. Hitchings does not yet (this is his first effort) have that gift of making even mundane history come alive. It is always informative. It is often slyly humorous. However, it is often very dry and a trifle repetitive. Many sections of the book are simply lists of words illustrating his point. The first two or three might be interesting, but then my eyes would begin to glaze over and I was anxious for him to move on to his next topic.

If you are keenly interested in lexicography, this volume may have a great deal of appeal for you. If, as I am, you are merely interested in a wide variety of subjects, this may prove to be a bit less enjoyable than one might hope.
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LibraryThing member kingcvcnc
The fascinating story of Dr. Johnson's writing of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. The definitions are pure Johnsonian and reflect his own view of the world and those in it.
LibraryThing member Prop2gether
Hitchings' telling of Dr. Johnson and his dictionary was mostly interesting, but had a tendency to sag a bit around the edges. However, as a relatively short introduction to the man and his most famous work, this was a look into a fascinating part of lexicological history.
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
The Académie française spent 55 years to compile their dictionary. A century later, a single Englishman set out to produce an English dictionary. Henry Hitchins tale about Samuel Johnson's dictonary project is a fascinating portrait of the man, his craft and the era. The author uses Johnson's definitions as chapter headings and the book reads like an encyclopedia of strange little facts, such as that the entire circulation up to JOhnson's death amounted to only 6.000 copies or that "tarantula" is an "insect whose bite is only cured by music". As befits the subject, the number of nuggets of information in such a short book is overwhelming. Overall, an excellent general introduction to the topic only diminished by the fact that it is impossible to retain all the information provided and one has to look it up again (in a dictionary or encyclopedia) ...… (more)
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Hitchings’s colorful descriptions of Johnson’s life and acquaintances lose their luster only when compared to the awesome feat of his dictionary. Not many people think of Samuel Johnson when their minds turns to dictionaries, but his eight-year effort paved the way for the likes of Webster and Murray. The author’s connection of Johnson’s Dictionary to the U.S. Constitution, while trivial, is rather unique in the world of lexicographical history.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
"Defining the World" does for Dr. Johnson's 18th century dictionary what Simon Winchester did in "The Meaning of Everything" for the Oxford English Dictionary. A popular, readable and enjoyable history. Hitchen's doesn't have the "spark" of Winchester's prose, he's only 30 and it's his first book, but he is well versed in his subject-he has a recent PhD on it in fact-the book is very well written. Most memorable for me were the descriptions of life in London in the middle to late 18th century and its many floppy characters. As befitting a book about a dictionary, there is substantial discussion of words and definitions and the many permutations-a seemingly dry subject but in the hands of Hitchings under the guidance of Johnson's raw material is really very funny and interesting. Unlike the OED, the Dictionary doesn't have a dramatic creation story, other than Johnson's colorful character which is as much mythology as reality. If for no other reason than I keep running into "Doctor Johnson" and his dictionary everywhere I turn, this book provided enjoyable context on what it's all about. As my studies will in the future focus on the 18th century, Dr Johnson has become an indispensable piece of culture to know about.… (more)
LibraryThing member aaronbaron
A lightweight and witty book about a considerable and erudite work. Hitchings’s pleasure in Johnson's great dictionary is both evident and infectious, but he does tend to slip into performative hyperbole, and his analysis seldom strays from the sunny shallows of delight. I attended an entertaining talk Hitchings gave at the London Museum, and he writes very much as he speaks; a clever lecturer, a charming dinner guest, an able master of ceremonies.… (more)
LibraryThing member camelot2302
We all know the Dr Johnson portrayed in the classic Blackadder episode and we all use his book, the Dictionary, every day. This book explores the life and background of Johnson, as well as his struggle to write the world's first English dictionary. A great subject for a book but in places, quite boring and unreadable.

For readers who are linguists or lexicographers, you would probably give this book 5 stars, because a lot of the book examines the definitions that Johnson gave to words, its original Latin or Greek roots, arguments for and against Johnson's definitions and so on. For those of us who are not linguists or lexicographers, these pages come across as rather dry, pedantic, and downright boring. I wanted the book to be a straightforward history book / biography but instead we get a lesson in lingustics, word formation and quotes from literature.

I was however amused and perhaps a little impressed by Hitchings including the Blackadder episode in the book and I liked parts of the book where he wrote clearly, fluently and concisely. I also liked how he named each book chapter after a word in Johnson's dictionary along with Johnson's definition. That was rather clever.

This book is highly interesting and in places extremely fascinating. But the author has the tendency to ramble on and on in places which will make you start to flip pages. So only buy this if you are truly interested in the subject of linguistics, the history of the English language and a fan of biographies in general. Otherwise you may end up disappointed.
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LibraryThing member rlangston
A disappointing book, which did not really cover how the dictionary itself was put together (compare for example with the excellent Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester in relation to the OED). The first and last few chapters did deal with some of Johnson's life leading up to and following the production of the dictionary. But the middle chapters, which should have dealt with the production itself, were essentially a long list of "interesting definitions in the dictionary".… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
This short book not only explains the significance of Johnson's dictionary, it offers an overview of his life and his place in English letters.. Hitchings positions the dictionary, and much of Johnson's other work, in its personal and historical context.
LibraryThing member ritaer
Hitchings combines bits of Johnson's biography with comments on the dictionary itself, including Johnson's sources for exemplars and for definitions, some of Johnson's idiosyncratic style and the reception and influence of the work. Entertaining for word nerds.
LibraryThing member kristykay22
As someone who is currently working her way through the complete works of Samuel Johnson and who read and loved The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. this book about Dr. Johnson and the creation of his legendary dictionary seemed like a clear winner. While Hitchings' prose can be distractingly clever and often more in love with vocabulary than readability (you can tell he is a man who loves dictionaries) the book is well researched and nicely structured, and the fascinating story of the first definitive English dictionary and the man who wrote and compiled it wins out in the end. Even though he was active 250 years ago, Johnson's relationship to the written word is so modern and it is easy to get caught up in his desire to tease out meanings and origins of the written English language. There is a reason that biographies and stories about Samuel Johnson have become classics alongside his actual work -- he is a fascinating, flawed, personality filled writer, and as Hitchings shows us, that personality drives his epic years-long dictionary project.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
I learned a lot, but not much I'll remember. ?And I was actually left with a lot of (vague) questions. ?áFor example, I would have liked to learn more about his wife Tetty. ?áSurely something was known besides what Hitchings shared. ?á

Sometimes bits were interesting, sometimes they were funny... but even fans of Johnson, or dictionaries, or England of the mid-1700s, will probably not get much out of this.

I did learn that as early as 2 1/2 centuries ago ppl were starting to think of books as less sacred, more as commodities, and there were so many being published that ppl were being advised to read more seriously. ?áJohnson took the attitude to the extreme, though, and took even 'quality' books apart, and borrowed from friends' collection, even staining a folio of Shakespeare. ?áThat was interesting.

Attitudes about what was worth writing were also more modern than I had expected. ?áI'd love to read Jane Collier's Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (a spoof conduct book).

The author devotes an end note to explaining why he doesn't have a bibliography. ?áHe says that credits are in the notes. ?áBut the notes are brief. ?áSo, I dunno, I feel a little uncomfortable speaking to the quality of the research and citations here. ?áI don't think I'd recommend this to scholars. ?á

There are some interesting pictures. ?áIt's short. ?áMuch of the interest lies just in the example citations and definitions Hitchings chooses from Johnson's work... which we could read ourselves... if we cared enough.
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