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Brother Mark is a pseudonym of The Reverend Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler, a clergyman, physician, writer and poet. His biography can be found at: www.robertjaggsfowler.com

Monday, September 04, 2006

Words, Glorious Words

Well, that long awaited moment has arrived. This very weekend I took delivery of the Folio Society’s facsimile of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary. (See Lexicographic Seduction, May 2006, for the background to this particular piece of debauchery). In two enormous volumes, beautifully bound in calf-leather, the dictionary is every much the delight it had promised to be.

One of the first pleasures on opening volume one is to be able to read Samuel Johnson’s own preface. Once one has become accustomed to the portrayal of the letter ‘s’ in the style of an ‘f’, it makes for fascinating reading. Here, Johnson depicts his life as a lexicographer in terms which suggest that he came to see his great work as a ‘drudge’ and expected little thanks for his efforts. He believed that he was:

“…doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress.”

The compilation of the first dictionary of the English language was clearly a far greater task than Johnson had initially believed it was going to be. However, the result was worth the effort. Indeed, many of Johnson’s own definitions have withstood the test of time and are to be found in the modern day Oxford English Dictionary.

That said, there were times when Johnson had to admit defeat. In his own words:

“Some words there are which I cannot explain, because I do not understand them…”

- a wonderfully honest statement from someone in his position.

It is probable that only someone with an immense love of books and words would share the spine-tingling pleasure achieved by the holding of one of these volumes. The delight and wonder comes from the fact that this is, as truly made as it can be, the next best thing to holding the original dictionary. That, and the overwhelming fact that the work was only published in 1755: a mere two hundred and fifty years ago. Bear in mind the significant works of literature which had been brought to the world by writers in the English language for several hundred years or more before that (Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and so on) and it becomes even more astonishing that nobody had written a dictionary before 1755. Equally astounding to the modern writer, armed with a whole armoury of dictionaries, encyclopaedias, electronic spell-checkers and the odd thesaurus or two to help him on his literary way, is that some of our country’s greatest writers were completely devoid of such lexicographical assistance. A thought for which I, for one, am all the humbler.

Johnson’s Dictionary promises to be a treasure box in which the most delightful of nuggets will be found. Only the repeated perusal of its pages will uncover them all: a task that will happily fill any wet, wintry afternoon for years to come. Thus far, I have only uncovered two such amuse-gueules.

The first relates to the word ‘twank’. ‘Twank’ is not a word to be found in the latest version of the Oxford Dictionary of English. No doubt, those with a Freudian disposition will take pleasure in the fact that this word, amongst thousands of others, stood out to me on my first perusal of the dictionary. However, putting aside such school-boy witticisms, it was the definition which first caught my eye, relating, as it does, to Freemen of the City of London; a status which I have the honour of holding. According to Johnson:

“A freeman of London has the privilege of disturbing a whole street with twanking of a brass kettle”.

I never knew I was so lucky – I must put it to the test sometime!

On a more serious note, the second enchanting entry for me relates not to a single word but to the whole section dedicated to words beginning with the letter ‘x’. There is not one! Samuel Johnson, for all his literary research, had to succumb to the following entry:

“X is a letter, which, although found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”

…letter dismissed!

Times have, of course, moved on and language does not stagnate. The Oxford Dictionary of English now lists ninety-three entries under the letter ‘x’, which is good for the richness of our language, but detracts nothing from the quaintness of Johnson’s own entry.

Enough for now. The volumes must be re-cased and put away for another day. One can only cope with so much excitement in one go. I will bring future discoveries to you as and when they arise.

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