Monday, April 14, 2014

Dr. Johnson was a great lexicographer, but he could have used a copy editor

April 15 marks the 259th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language:
"I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected, suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance, resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion, and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation."

Samuel Johnson, from the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language
Awfully prescriptive, isn't it, not the sort of thing one would would see today.

I bought an abridged edition of the great book a few months ago. In honor of the book's birthday, here is a surprise I found within:
"asshead n.s. [from ass and head] One slow of apprehension; a blockhead.

"Will you help an asshead, and a coxcomb, an a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull."
Shakesp. Hamlet.
The remarkable thing, other than the word's beguiling punch, is that the line is not, in fact, from Hamlet, but rather from Twelfth Night, Act V, Scene i

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger RT said...

I remember referring to SJ's dictionary when I researched an essay for graduate school (which the professor later encouraged me to submit for publication -- and it was published in The Explicator). I wanted to understand better the phrase "a month's mind" in Congreve's The Way of the World. SJ was most helpful, allowing me to understand through 18th century minds.

April 14, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One thing Johnson's eighteenth-century mind was interested in was what sixteenth- and seventeenth-century minds had to say.

My one thought about eighteenth-century minds is that, more than any that had come before, they wrote for a general public. It's why Hume called himself an emissary between the worlds of learning and conversation. And it's why I can read Voltaire and Montesquieu in French.

April 15, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your headline suggested you were going to copyedit poor old Samuel. I read your post closely, but I didn't see any copyediting. Perhaps, I missed something.

April 15, 2014  

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