If you keep an eye on them, you might notice that dictionary-makers are marginally bitchier than catwalk models. A few summers ago, the revised editions of the Chambers Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English were published into an avid marketplace. Out came the lipstick, out came the knives, as the great lexicographers of today rolled their eyes at one another and balanced their inky fingernails on their slender hips. “Bling-bling” is one word separated by a hyphen, said Oxford. Not at all, honey-pie. Two words and no hyphen, said Chambers, summoning the authority of the ancients, or Puff Daddy, seeing as the ancients were unavailable.
Authority and provenance are watchwords for the dictionary-making classes. In February 2000, seventeen members of Congress brought a federal lawsuit against President Bill Clinton, claiming that Clinton had no constitutional right to bomb the former Yugoslavia without Congress’s firm authorization. Campbell v. Clinton argued that the President had failed to secure a “declaration of war,” thereby denying members their constitutional right to have their say on the matter. In Defining the World, Henry Hitchings takes up the story in celebratory mood. “The US Constitution,” he writes,
gives Congress exclusive power to declare war. President Clinton, it was argued, had violated this constitutional principle. One of the issues at stake was the meaning of “declare”: was a declaration of war synonymous with military engagement, or was it simply a recognition of the prerequisites for conflict? Equally, what was meant in the Constitution by the word “war”? The decision was made to consult the dictionary which would have been the standard authority at the time when the Constitution was drawn up in 1787. That standard authority was of course Johnson.
Samuel Johnson’s jurisdiction over the English language was never simply a matter of his poetic skill as a definer of meaning, nor of his compendious way with examples, though these elements of his talent continue to make one feel larger and smaller at the same time. His special feature lay in how he brought such moral perspicacity to the task, how he made it angelic. During his “heroic ordeal,” Johnson was struggling to give English to the people, and he ended up making a nationhood from the philosophical energies that lay hidden in the people’s language and in the strange beauties of their greatest literature. “Like the colossal Encyclopédie of the Frenchmen Diderot and d’Alembert,” writes Hitchings,
which distilled the essence of the Continental Enlightenment, the Dictionary was a machine de guerre. It would become an instrument of cultural imperialism, and its publication was a defining moment in the realization of what was in the eighteenth century a brand new concept, namely Britishness.
Working together, it took the forty members of the French Academy fifty-five years to do for the French what Johnson did for the British in twelve years, and Johnson did the central work alone. He called in some transcribing help from a handful of hacks, most of them Scottish,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.