Defining the World

A Dictionary of the English Language: An AnthologyPeter Martin’s biography of Samuel Johnson has come across my desk and shoved my reading hard in the direction of the 18th century. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language is one of those classic texts always at the back of my awareness, but never a thing I attempted to absorb until this moment. Naturally, I found I could not read a biography of a man without also reading the primary texts.

And what a surprise and delight. This book is no mere attempt to corral language and bend it to Johnson’s will. It is like a million jumping off points for philosophical argument and debate. How did I miss this? The cheap Penguin classics copy of the Dictionary–horribly abridged and therefore all the more tantalizing and titillating–is now my constant companion. And when I need a distraction I find myself opening it to random words:

IN’JURY: 1. Hurt without justice.

I find myself thinking that “justice” –its presence or lack–is no longer so obviously an aspect of the word.

Then there are the words that have been lost, and sadly so:

To QUOB [a low word] To move as the embrio does in the womb; to move as the heart does when throbbing.

(I’m mourning the loss of this word)

To GRU’BBLE. To feel in the dark.

For which Johnson’s example is this, from Dryden:

Thou hast a colour;
Now let me rowl and grubble thee:
Blinkd men say white feels smooth, and
black feels rough:
Thou has a ruffed skin; I do not like
thee.

And then there are the words whose meanings have altered until they are almost foreign to us:

NICE: adj. 1. Accurate in judgement to minute exactness; superfluously exact. It is often used to express culpable delicacy.

There are eight different definitions ranging from delicate and refined to squeamish and fastidious.  But the one definition that is NOT present is “kind” or “sweet” or “civil.”


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