Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World by Henry Hitchings - review by Nicholas Bagnall

Nicholas Bagnall

More than Words

Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World


John Murray 278pp £14.99

We know a great deal about Samuel Johnson, not only from Boswell (though he came into Johnson’s life late) and friends like Mrs Thrale, but also from a cloud of scholarly biographers in our own time. So what new is there to learn? Henry Hitchings approaches the formidable presence from a different angle, showing us how the whole man can be found in the pages of his Dictionary – from his melancholy (a word which, with its cognates such as melancholic, appears more than 150 times) to his ambivalent views on marriage, his deep conservatism, and his suspicion of nonconformists, foreigners and freethinkers. With the Dictionary to hand, we don’t need to be told by Boswell that Johnson was a man who held strong opinions – they’re all there in its closely printed pages. Good modern dictionaries are not supposed to do this; they are expected to record, not to pass comment, apart from a few brief indications (‘obsolete’, for example, or ‘taboo’ for coarse slang). Johnson passes comment all the time: whether to forward his own political views, as in his long entry under Whig; to settle a score, as in his dig at Chesterfield under patron; or, more often, to show himself as an arbiter of taste, as when he tells us that shabby is a ‘low’ word that ‘ought not to be admitted into the language’. In his preface to the Dictionary he says: ‘[I] do not teach men how to think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts’; but he certainly lets us know what he thinks.

Of course he’s sometimes out of date. His first definition of garble, for instance, is ‘to sift’; the word has done a U-turn since then, but he would not have been upset. It’s true that his original aim had been the opposite of the modern dictionary-maker’s. His idea was to

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