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Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary (2005)

by Henry Hitchings

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4681641,369 (3.9)31
By 1700, France and Italy already had dictionaries of their own, and it became a matter of national pride that England should rival them. Dr Johnson rose to the challenge, turning over the garret of his London home to the creation of his Dictionary. He imagined it would take three years. Eight years later it was finally published, full of idiosyncrasies, but complete nevertheless. It would become the most important British cultural monument of the eighteenth century. This is the story of Johnson's attempt to define each and every word. In wonderfully engaging chapters, Hitchings describes Johnson's adventure - his ambition and vision, his moments of despair, the mistakes he made along the way and his ultimate triumph.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Hitchings combines bits of Johnson's biography with comments on the dictionary itself, including Johnson's sources for exemplars and for definitions, some of Johnson's idiosyncratic style and the reception and influence of the work. Entertaining for word nerds.
  ritaer | Mar 14, 2020 |
As someone who is currently working her way through the complete works of Samuel Johnson and who read and loved The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. this book about Dr. Johnson and the creation of his legendary dictionary seemed like a clear winner. While Hitchings' prose can be distractingly clever and often more in love with vocabulary than readability (you can tell he is a man who loves dictionaries) the book is well researched and nicely structured, and the fascinating story of the first definitive English dictionary and the man who wrote and compiled it wins out in the end. Even though he was active 250 years ago, Johnson's relationship to the written word is so modern and it is easy to get caught up in his desire to tease out meanings and origins of the written English language. There is a reason that biographies and stories about Samuel Johnson have become classics alongside his actual work -- he is a fascinating, flawed, personality filled writer, and as Hitchings shows us, that personality drives his epic years-long dictionary project. ( )
  kristykay22 | Dec 23, 2018 |
I learned a lot, but not much I'll remember. ?And I was actually left with a lot of (vague) questions. ?áFor example, I would have liked to learn more about his wife Tetty. ?áSurely something was known besides what Hitchings shared. ?á

Sometimes bits were interesting, sometimes they were funny... but even fans of Johnson, or dictionaries, or England of the mid-1700s, will probably not get much out of this.

I did learn that as early as 2 1/2 centuries ago ppl were starting to think of books as less sacred, more as commodities, and there were so many being published that ppl were being advised to read more seriously. ?áJohnson took the attitude to the extreme, though, and took even 'quality' books apart, and borrowed from friends' collection, even staining a folio of Shakespeare. ?áThat was interesting.

Attitudes about what was worth writing were also more modern than I had expected. ?áI'd love to read Jane Collier's Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (a spoof conduct book).

The author devotes an end note to explaining why he doesn't have a bibliography. ?áHe says that credits are in the notes. ?áBut the notes are brief. ?áSo, I dunno, I feel a little uncomfortable speaking to the quality of the research and citations here. ?áI don't think I'd recommend this to scholars. ?á

There are some interesting pictures. ?áIt's short. ?áMuch of the interest lies just in the example citations and definitions Hitchings chooses from Johnson's work... which we could read ourselves... if we cared enough. ( )
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 6, 2016 |
A disappointing book, which did not really cover how the dictionary itself was put together (compare for example with the excellent Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester in relation to the OED). The first and last few chapters did deal with some of Johnson's life leading up to and following the production of the dictionary. But the middle chapters, which should have dealt with the production itself, were essentially a long list of "interesting definitions in the dictionary". ( )
  rlangston | May 1, 2014 |
This short book not only explains the significance of Johnson's dictionary, it offers an overview of his life and his place in English letters.. Hitchings positions the dictionary, and much of Johnson's other work, in its personal and historical context. ( )
  nmele | Dec 26, 2013 |
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By 1700, France and Italy already had dictionaries of their own, and it became a matter of national pride that England should rival them. Dr Johnson rose to the challenge, turning over the garret of his London home to the creation of his Dictionary. He imagined it would take three years. Eight years later it was finally published, full of idiosyncrasies, but complete nevertheless. It would become the most important British cultural monument of the eighteenth century. This is the story of Johnson's attempt to define each and every word. In wonderfully engaging chapters, Hitchings describes Johnson's adventure - his ambition and vision, his moments of despair, the mistakes he made along the way and his ultimate triumph.

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