A Man of Many Words – Johnson’s Dictionary

In the spring of 1746 Dr. Johnson began work on a dictionary, his intention was to fix and codify the English language, which seemed to him and to people like Addison, Swift and Dryden, badly in need of grooming and discipline. But the task merely of recording and describing the English of his time, when new words from science and commerce were flooding into the language, proved almost beyond him, and he wrote later, in a preface to the dictionary: “It must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it . . . words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water.”

Samuel Johnson’s dictionary has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.”

To dip into his dictionary today is to be reminded even more forcefully of how fluid and mutable our language is. To begin with, there are only 42,773 entries – an almost absurdly small number by our standards. (James Murray’s great Oxford English Dictionary, finished in 1928, had 414,825.) And not only are there hundreds of words we no longer use or recognize, but many we think we know turn out to have had very different meanings back then. A jogger for Dr. Johnson was “one who moves heavily and dully”; an orgasm was “sudden vehemence”; a fireman, “a man of violent passions”; and a urinator was “a diver; one who searches under water.”

via A Man of Many Words – New York Times.

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