Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words

L. Mugglestone (Oxford University Press, 2015), 304pp, £22.50 (hbk)
ISBN 978 0 19967 990 4

Reviewed by Ruth Durbridge

Buy this book

The ‘sea of words’ that is the English language, according to Samuel Johnson, gives rise to the metaphors of world travel that Lynda Mugglestone uses in each chapter of this book to describe in detail the thinking and dictionary production processes of the most important and influential writer, scholar and lexicographer in 18th-century England.

Born in Lichfield and later working in London, Johnson began work on his Dictionary of the English Language in 1747, having been commissioned by a syndicate of printers who felt the need for such a project as a result of the increasing literacy of the population, new printing and bookbinding methods, and reduced costs of production. There had been many attempts to capture and describe language before this but Johnson’s achievement lay in doing the hard graft himself, together with six amanuenses, initially believing the task would take three years. It took eight years, caused much controversy and was finally printed in two folio volumes in April 1755.

‘Departures and destinations’ – Chapter 2 – explains the early development of the Plan of a Dictionary: the methodological approaches considered and adopted for the venture. Chapter 3, ‘Excursions into books’ (Johnson’s phrase), is a fascinating account of the writers he used as sources: Dryden, Pope, Shakespeare and Swift are but a few of them. Actual usage as primary evidence for the compilation was vitally important to Johnson; he was refreshingly adamant that women’s writing should be included, for instance. And, yes, we do get a long answer to the question ‘How exactly did Johnson and co. read 2000 texts, mark them up and fill 80 hand-made notebooks in the lexicon-gathering process?’

The ‘journey’ continues through questions of power and authority, Johnson disliking the autocratic supremacy dictionary-making can give and preferring to think in terms of refinement of language. Indeed, ‘banter’, ‘wabble’ and ‘shabby’ were all found to be wanting, though the lexicographer was tolerant of idiosyncratic modes of spelling. Mugglestone’s volume identifies and intricately explains many of these: for example, ‘gaol’ and ‘jail’ and ‘embassy’ but ‘ambassador’. It also goes without saying that she fully explores French and Latin language stimuli, assimilation and other linguistic movement, matching Johnson’s love of world influence. The reader learns that perdue is a Gallicism that became an 18th-century idiom, that Johnson did not like the ligature ‘oe’, and that his etymological declarations – ‘chocolate’, ‘renegade’ and ‘peccadillo’ (Spanish), ‘lingo’ (Portuguese), ‘caravan’ (Arabic) and ‘mufti’ (Turkish) – triggered debate then as now.

Mugglestone investigates the storms surrounding prescriptive versus descriptive choices, and emphatically states, ‘the dictionary changes in response to usage, not usage in response to dictionaries’. Thus, while the Dictionary was declared by Johnson to be imperfect, with around 500 faults, it was not for want of trying to be perfect; Mugglestone concludes that a living language cannot be perfect – or indeed complete. Further, she asserts that, while Johnson’s Dictionary fixed neither English spelling nor nuances of meaning, it is as much a monument to what was not done as to what was done.

Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words contains five illustrations, an insightful appendix and comprehensive notes that are easy to follow, for those wanting to know more. The book becomes more decipherable after p62, the introductory parts containing so much quotation that the reader can’t see the sea for the ships. This should not dissuade anyone interested in the history of the English language from seeking out Johnson’s definition of ‘bamboozled’ and even ‘confounded Tories’.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews