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, denizens of Grub Street who were gin-soaked and half-dead before they even got started: Frances Stewart, Robert Shiels, the brothers Macbean, and a single, poor Englishman, V.J. Peyton, an amanuensis with a terribly shaky hand and with scarce a penny to his name. Even Boswell’s deathless panegyric in favor of his unwieldy friend cannot quite summon the true nature of the task Johnson undertook. He fought past poverty and melancholy, disease and bereavement, to mention little of the neglect of his patron, Lord Chesterfield. The book is a beautiful read, and its influence is unending, but more, it is a perfect and rather profound display of human nature. Without it, English-speakers would not be English-speakers as we think of them: it was Johnson who Johnsonized the world, and we may still seek to know him and know ourselves through the portals of the Dictionary.

Henry Hitchings is a good writer himself, and his effort to make us see the exact proportions of Johnson’s achievement—taking care over the little things, and showing an ability to understand the pages of the Dictionary as offering a lively piece of autobiography—begin to place him in the same company as Richard Holmes. There is only a handful of writers who are writer enough to bring freshness to literary history; Holmes is one, Fintan O’Toole another, and we might mourn the passing of Alethea Hayter. Here, with his first book, Hitchings demonstrates a cool understanding of how to pour fresh water into a heap of dust, and the pleasure is in watching for bubbles and green shoots.

So many vast (and sometimes gratuitous) properties have been attached to Johnson’s Dictionary that it is sometimes difficult to keep in mind the fact that it is primarily the effusion of a writer’s mind and memory. Like a deeply felt but slightly crazy novel—a Shandean novel, one might say, though not in front of the Doctor—the Dictionary tells not only the story of the English language but the story of Samuel Johnson as a man obsessed with it. Though his friend Boswell would have missed the point, the book is as revealing of its author as Boswell’s own private journals are revealing of theirs, giving readers thousands of tiny insights into Johnson’s nature, as well as the character of his prejudices. The word issue is defined in the Dictionary as “a vent made in a muscle for the discharge of humours.” Hitchings gives us to understand that this procedure was performed on Johnson as an infant after he developed scrofula, having enjoyed the infected milk of a wet-nurse named Joan Marklew. Likewise, under “putrid,” he records the observation of the physician John Arbuthnot: “If a nurse feed only on flesh, and drink water, her milk, instead of turning sour, will turn putrid, and smell of urine.”


Young Johnson made his entanglement with words into a very high and pure form of self-realization, and he later took definitions from that time—as well as supporting quotations—into the Dictionary. From his years at Oxford he gleaned battels (“to feed on trust,” wrote Johnson, describing the system where one paid for meals and lodgings after one had enjoyed them); a commoner was “a student of the second rank,” one like Johnson himself, who attended the university without the aid of a scholarship. The Dictionary never forgets, as Johnson himself would never forget, that words are also something out of which money can be made. After Oxford, and stints of teaching, he made his way to Grub Street (“originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems”), and thereafter found London to be as he later describes it in the Dictionary definition of fortune—“the chance of life; means of living.” The definition is supported by a short quotation from Swift: “His father dying, he was driven to London to seek his fortune.”

Literary London was not merely a great gathering of experiences for Johnson, but a veritable public stew of good words. He went to work in the Clerkenwell offices of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and that organ and its editor would provide the Dictionary with its definition of magazine: “a miscellaneous pamphlet, from a periodical miscellany…published under the name of…Edward Cave.” We know that the darkest period of Johnson’s time in London—before the Dictionary, before his government pension, and before celebrity—was spent in the company of the small-time poet and alleged murderer Richard Savage. Hitchings says the two were inseparable, and certainly we might understand more of that relationship from the words Savage gave to the Dictionary than from anything Boswell put down in the Life of Johnson. His feeble existence is commemorated in eight definitions, most notably for lone, squander, and suicide. Between the lines of lexicographical nuance and quotation, Johnson was paying old debts and seeking out wisdom about himself and his adopted city, as well as compiling perhaps the greatest commonplace book in the history of mankind.

Johnson was the right man for the job, but making a dictionary of the English language was also the right job for the man, as the book’s many eccentricities can prove. He signed the contract over breakfast at the Golden Anchor near Holborn on June 18, 1746, agreeing to receive 1,500 guineas in installments. Hitchings has charm and dexterity when it comes to conjuring the London streets and the life around Johnson’s disheveled house in Gough Square. Boswell’s Life is always struggling—rather winningly—toward those points where Boswell himself can be in evidence on the page, reporting and recording and showing off, but he is not so thorough in his account of Johnson’s working conditions. Boswell came into the picture in 1762, and was himself a celebrity-stalker as well as a celebrity-maker. Hitchings feels, though, that he was too lazy or too callow to probe the real dark business of the labor involved in compiling the Dictionary. Johnson himself caught it rather well in a sentence quoted here, and it becomes the rubric for much of what Hitchings posits at the center of Johnson’s achievement: “The English dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and sorrow.”

Johnson was a moral educator—or “a moral policeman in linguist’s clothing,” as Hitchings prefers—and the Dictionary takes its place in a long-standing tradition of dictionaries in every culture, especially Islamic, where such books were supposed to be imbued with moral instruction. Johnson’s Plan for the work speaks of the book eventually giving pleasure “by conveying some elegance of language,” but, rather more than this, he hoped it would afford “some precept of prudence, or piety.” Hitchings points out that the first seven illustrations of the verb to instruct all come from the Bible. For the great lexicographer, language was, above all things, the repository of rights and wrongs, and he found in his task an almost ceaseless flow of opportunities for the upbraiding of the false and the glorification of the good.


He left things out, and—given that the Dictionary is a book in which he quotes himself thirty-three times, and where he sometimes simply makes quotes up on the spot—he found certain exemplars of good usage to be unacceptable on rather patrician moral grounds. For example, there are very few women quoted in the Dictionary. Here’s Hitchings:

Several popular Elizabethans are left out—notably Christopher Marlowe, who was then little known. He omitted the politician and philosopher Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, on the grounds that his philosophy was impious and his English tainted with terms borrowed from French. Nor we do we find Thomas Hobbes, the latitudinarian divines Samuel Clarke and Isaac Barrow, Bernard Mandeville, social theorist and advocate of egoism, or Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury. All had published important books: all were in some way obnoxious to Johnson’s taste. Clarke was a writer whom he admired but probably left out because his views on the Holy Trinity were controversial. The same was true of Barrow. Hobbes, Mandeville and Shaftesbury were denied space because Johnson was reluctant to ascribe any kind of authority to them. He later told Hester Thrale that he would never cite “any wicked writer’s authority for a word, lest it should send people to look in a book that might injure them for ever.”

But not all Johnson’s tics are ethical ones. His interest in words was essentially philosophical, and many of his choices point not only to his own life and the life of his own mind, but also into what can sometimes seem a dreamscape of metaphysical concerns. We feel the pulse not only of his thought but of some large Johnsonian spirit as he reached to write down what a word actually is. Rust is “the red desquamation of old iron”; conscience is “the knowledge or faculty by which we judge of the goodness or wickedness of ourselves”; an expletive is “something used only to take up room; something of which the use is only to prevent a vacancy”; to hiccough is “to sob with convulsion of the stomach”; a puppet is “a wooden tragedian”; an uxorious man is “infected with connubial dotage”; and obsession is “the act of besieging” or “the first attack of Satan, antecedent to possession.”

Unlike most dictionary-makers, Johnson seldom reaches coldly for synonyms or for words that tell you what a word is not: every small thought conceals a judgment and a pleasure, a feeling for the way words can encapsulate or absorb the oddness of human experience. Hitchings tells us that Johnson wanted to feed or create a certain critical faculty in the mind of persons consulting his Dictionary, and that is right: he doesn’t only provide a list of what words mean, but creates a literary mechanism whereby users will wonder what he means, as well as wondering who they are themselves when they use these words.

The Dictionary is also a charming repository of lost language and lost meanings—Hitchings cites dandiprat, jobbernowl, and looby—but the greater part of its power must have lain in the way it officially articulated a scheme for English in a time where it could instantly be appreciated by the rising middle classes. Johnson wanted to purge the language of barbarisms while creating a standard of grammatical purity and firm moral sense. “The Dictionary,” writes Hitchings,

is a key moment in the establishing of a national standard English. When Johnson applies one of his denigratory labels to a word, he is evidently hoping to curb its use. He is trying to repress what he considers illegitimate. Furthermore, his emphasis on the written word necessarily excluded the language of illiterates and groups whose chief mode of communication was oral. Later, when he visited Scotland, he would remark the high level of rural illiteracy, and suggest that those who knew nothing of written language were doomed to live only in the present tense—for “what is once out of sight is lost for ever.”

There is a lot of Johnson in Johnson’s definitions, and that is the beauty of the thing and the literary art it conceals. His fingerprint is always there in the possibilities he conjures for a word. So, famously, we have oats—“a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Even before the arrival of Boswell, his young Scottish foil, that would raise a smile. We also have foxhunter—“a man whose chief ambition is to shew his bravery in hunting foxes”; distiller—“one who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits.” And who could resist the amount of human stuff present in his definition of the word seal—“in making and growth not unlike a pig, ugly faced, and footed like a moldwarp.” An orgasm is a “sudden vehemence.” One of the senses of leader, he writes, is “one at the head of any party or faction: as the detestable Wharton was the leader of the Whigs.” There can be no doubting that Johnson is a Tory, or that he thinks London is plagued with drunks and that seals are not to be borne with any great quantity of ease. In his Dictionary, opinions are offered like reasonings, prejudices are served up as maxims, and the whole production is grand with unflinching personality.

One can’t forget that Johnson was one of the best writers of his age, and many of the Dictionary’s great nuances seeped from his imagination and from his strange, often exasperated experience of living. Hitchings’s effort to see the book as a sort of autobiography works on every level, but is perhaps most helpful when it comes to the business of Johnson’s troubled marriage to Tetty. The marriage was crumbling as Johnson got on with his backbreaking work, and little announcements of frustration and resentment find their way into his definitions of certain words, or, more often, into his choice of quotations to support them. So we have world, quoting John Dryden: “Marriage draws a world of business on our hands, subjects us to lawsuits, and loads us with domestick cares.” He would later reproach himself very lavishly over his attitude toward Tetty, but the Dictionary speaks a different language. Stocks are, as we know, a “prison for the legs.” But Johnson looked to Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman for an example of how the word might usefully be deployed in everyday speech: “Matrimony is expressed by a young man standing, his legs being fast in a pair of stocks.”

Even 250 years later, Johnson’s Dictionary still smells wonderfully of the oil lamp and is flavored with the progress of personal grief. Perhaps the chief property of an excellent book is not that it has no failings, but that even its failings are magnifying. In the Dictionary, uphill has two “l”s and downhill has one; he forgets to list definitions for the words civilization, athlete, and zinc. Johnson often had reasons for these things, but such is his moral personality that even having no reason is reason enough. Henry Hitchings has proved himself a rather skilled conjurer of the Johnsonian spirit. With the right combination of fun and exactitude, he sees why Johnson matters.

I have “little to fear or hope from censure or from praise,” Johnson said, and he had little sense of how his super-eminence would outgrow the age that invented it. In a time when England was taking over the world, he sent language out like a flotilla of wormy ships, their Union Jacks snapping in the breeze. The flags would fray soon enough, and many of the ships would never return, but Johnson’s English is now part of the breeze itself, checked only by the growth of an English he would have found more than appalling—American English, which has become the business, technological, and entertainment lexicon of the world. “The American dialect, a tract of corruption,” he said. Nevertheless, his large, incongruous features might have creased with pleasure to know the US Congress could still lay its hands on a copy of his book, there to understand what we actually mean when we mean to declare.

This Issue

April 27, 2006