Inside the making of a dictionary

March 1, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

When I turned 18 in 1966, just a week or so before I headed off to the University of Tennessee as a freshman journalism major, my sister gave me a copy of the New Webster Seventh Collegiate Dictionary. It was an incredibly wonderful gift that I used frequently during and after my college days. Today, a half-century later, it sits on my shelf, still ready for use at a moment’s notice.

Samuel Johnson Dictionaries are marvels of any language. But English has resisted the orderly cataloging that has been routine for many other tongues. Early lexicographers believed they could impose some necessary order on the language by setting down spellings and definitions and making them permanent. But the language quickly showed them who was boss.

Samuel Johnson (right) recognized this inability to tame the language in the preface to his great dictionary (1755) when he wrote: “We laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.”

The Guardian of London newspaper has a “long read” look at the history of dictionaries in English and the efforts of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary to keep up with the language in this digital age. 

Highly recommended.

And speaking of Samuel Johnson . . . .

Samuel Johnson was an unlikely candidate to be a leading figure in the development of English, and yet he is rated as second only to Shakespeare in his contributions.

After nine years of work, Johnson produced the Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. It was not the first attempt at compiling, defining, and standardizing the spelling of the words in the English language, but it was to date the most elegant. The dictionary had 43,000 definitions and 114,000 quotations from all of English literature.

Johnson’s reputation was secured when he met a young Scottish lawyer, James Boswell, who became devoted to him. Boswell had a remarkable memory, and after Johnson died in 1784, Boswell wrote a two-volume biography of him that is still considered one of the greatest biographies in the English language.

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3 comments on “Inside the making of a dictionary

  1. As with many things in life, I wish the English language, and therefore the dictionaries
    which catalog the meanings of all those delightful words, would stay the same!
    I, too, still have the (Webster’s Collegiate) dictionary and thesaurus given to me in high
    school. The thesaurus is especially well-used and loved!

  2. I don”t think I”ve ever seen something by Boswell that I didn”t love, or that didn”t make me nostalgic for the times he portrayed. His ability to convey so much with an economy of line was sheer brilliance.

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