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Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary
Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary
by Henry Hitchings
Edition: Hardcover
79 used & new from $0.01

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Defining Lexicography: Dr. Johnson and His Achievement, January 5, 2007
This is an extraordinary book itself--part biography, part intellectual history, part cultural history, part criticism and part paean. I suppose it must be all these things to convey to the reader the extraordinary magnitude of Johnson's achievement as well as the extraordinary nature of Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century polymath who 250 years ago created, single-handedly, the first great dictionary of the English language and in so doing produced a work of lasting greatness while at the same time laying down the standards by which lexicography is practiced even today.

Hitchings 35 chapters all begin with a word and a definition from Johnson's Dictionary. (Some letters are represented more than once, others not at all.) Thus we have chapters with titles like "Adventurous," "Amulet," "English," Lexicographer," "Patron," and "Philology." Johnson's definition of the word lexicographer is worth quoting. It reveals not only the self-deprecating man but also his emphasis on etymology. To Johnson, a lexicographer is "a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words."

Johnson began work on the Dictionary in 1747, commissioned by a coalition of printers and booksellers. When he began, he confidently estimated that he could complete the work in three years. (In fact, it took him eight years.) He was to be paid 1,500 guineas (₤1,575), in installments, about ₤150,000 in today's money. The task dragged out because Johnson soon realized "the moral importance of the work and the philosophical difficulties of rationalizing language."

Johnson's innovation as a lexicographer was to infer meanings from actual use. Thus he read great swaths of English literature, searching for and recording examples of how writers actually used words. For the most part, lexicographers still follow Johnson's methods, though now they include spoken as well as written examples. By the time he had done, Johnson had approximately 110,000 quotations to illustrate 42,773 entries. (He used only half the quotations he collected.) Previous dictionary writers had simply taken their word lists from other works. Johnson did look at previous attempts and then abandoned that approach in favor of his perusal of English writers.

Early on, Johnson sought the patronage of the Earl of Chesterfield, a wealthy young aristocrat with a known interest in the arts. In an age before large publishing houses, contracts, copyrights and royalties, patronage--that is, financial support--was about the only way a writer could make a go of it. In the event, the Earl was of little or no help. Nonetheless, as the dictionary neared publication, Chesterfield let it be known that he would like the Dictionary to be dedicated to him. Johnson's reaction is famous. In a letter to the Earl, Johnson asserted that "[t]he notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it."

Homer nods and even Johnson makes mistakes. His definitions are sometimes inaccurate or more complex than the thing defined. He defines "pastern" as the knee of a horse. It is not. His famous definition of "net"--anything with interstitial vacuities--is unnecessarily difficult. He also includes a number of unusual words, words which are today unknown and were unusual even in his own day. Examples include `amatorcultist,' a `little insignificant lover'; `bellygod,' `one who makes a god of his belly'; `deosculation', the `act of kissing'; `mouth-friend', `one who professes friendship without intending it' (one can see reason for reviving this word); `mouth-honor', `civility outwardly expressed without sincerity' (this one, too); `potvaliant', a person `heated with courage by strong drink'; `schiomachy', `battle with a shadow'; `shapesmith', `one who undertakes to improve the form of the body'; `vaticide', a `murderer of poets' (who would do such a thing); and `goldfinder,' a word used, humorously, by those who empty toilets. Still, despite its defects, Johnson's Dictionary was the standard for a century. The poet Robert Browning felt it necessary to read the thing through as a means of preparing himself for his career as a poet. And many other writers felt the same sort of respect for Johnson's work.

Such was Johnson's authority that no one felt the need to replace his Dictionary until 1857, when it was more than 100 years old. In that year, Hitchings writes, "London's august Philological Society decided that a new English dictionary was needed." Work on that dictionary, which was to become the Oxford English Dictionary, began on 12 May 1860. Completed with an army of assistants, the work on OED continued for 68 years. James Murray, the principal lexicographer, "worked with Johnson's Dictionary open on the table beside him in his Scriptorium. . . . In the end the OED reproduced around 1,700 of Johnson's definitions, marking them simply `J'. His layout and method of definition were also followed."

Even though the American Noah Webster despised Johnson, his reach extended across the Atlantic in his own day and touches us even now in the twenty-first century. According to Hitchings, American legal scholars, particularly constitutional scholars, consult Johnson's Dictionary to understand the meanings of words current at the time of the founding of our Republic. Hitchings cites the February 2000 case of Campbell v. Clinton. This action was brought by seventeen members of the US Congress, who argued that in authorizing approximately 4,500 air strikes in Yugoslavia, President Bill Clinton was declaring war, and, constitutionally, only Congress could make such declarations. The meanings of both `declare' and `war' were called into question, and the courts decided to "consult the dictionary which would have been the standard authority at the time when the Constitution was drawn up in 1787. That standard authority was of course Johnson."

Though it is now more than 250 years old, the great work continues to influence the affairs of men. Hitchings has written a spellbinding account of both the man and the work.


Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus
Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus
by Thomas Cahill
Edition: Paperback
34 used & new from $0.01

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What would Jesus do?, October 5, 2004
Thomas Cahill is a remarkable historian and this is a most remarkable book. Cahill has set himself the task of examining the pivotal periods in the history of western civilization; he wants to look at those periods, figure out what happened, and determine how that period led us to where we are now. Another effort of his is Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, an examination of the Greek contribution to Western Civilization.

In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Cahill looks at the Mediterranean basin in the years before and after the birth of Jesus. One things that is clear is this: without the Jews, we would probably not value justice and mercy as we do today. Though the Greeks were concerned with arete and the Romans with virtu, these concepts did not include mercy toward your enemies or justice for all, no matter their social station. Instead, those two defining values of the west come to us from the Jews through the Christians. Cahill, by the way, sees Christianity as a off-shot of Judaism.

The final chapters, extremely moving chapters by the way, deal with the life of Jesus. Almost nothing about institutionalized Christianity of today came from Jesus's teaching, Cahill tells us. The patriarchy, the emphasis on sin, the denial of the flesh--all these things came later and after. What Christ taught was love and forgiveness. Everything else you think you know about Christianity is added on later by people who did not know Jesus.


Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website
Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website
by Chryss Yost
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.24
55 used & new from $0.01

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Poem a Day, January 31, 2004
Before you can understand this book, you must understand the online site, Poetry Daily, from which these poems have been harvested. Poetry Daily publishes (or, rather, re-publishes) a new poem everyday, but the poems have all been previously published in a literary journal or book of poetry. Thus, at Poetry Daily, you may read a poem by William Matthews or A.E. Stallings, Rachel Hadas, Marilyn Hacker or Dana Gioia. And these poems may have been previously published almost anywhere, for the editors' taste is nothing if not eclectic. I have been reading Poetry Daily, almost daily, for almost all of the six years of its existence, and I can tell you that the poems published there do not reflect a particular agenda or school of poetry. Poetry Daily has published free verse, mostly, because that is what is mostly published in the journals, but you will also find there sonnets, villanelles, ballads, blues stanzas, translations, light verse, prose poems, you name it. What all the poems have in common is a kind of inner quality I can call only "brightness." The editors seem drawn to poems that are intelligent, that evoke honest emotion, that display an energetic diction, that have a distinctive voice, and that make use of images that are bright and clear. And, as these things are true of the poems published on the web site, they are even more true of the poems published in this book because this book represents a careful culling of the poems published on the web site. So, what you have, really, is a kind of best of the best of American poetry over the last six years. The book is a treat, and a good answer to the question--where is American poetry at right now?
The concept behind the book is that you read one poem a day for each of the 366 days of 2004. (Yep, it's a leap year.) So, you might want to keep this book on your nightstand and read one poem every night before you go to bed. If at the end of the year, you have read all 366 poems, you will have genuinely accomplished something rare because there are few people in the country who read even one contemporary poem a year, much less 366. And that's a shame because so much really good, if not great, poetry is being published, everyday. Oh, there is the usual amount of druck in the journals, to be sure. But every age has had its literary impostors who somehow, by force of personality or connections, make a name for themselves as poets even though they lack talent. And there have always been editors who lack taste. (Think of Emily Dickinson being rejected.) You won't find such poets here among Poetry Daily's 366 choice selections because these editors don't have tin ears.
What you will find are poems like "Those Graves in Rome" by Larry Levis (for November 17). It is a long poem, so I will quote only a few lines:
There are places where the eye can starve,
But not here. Here, for example is
The Piazza Navona, & here is his narrow room
Overlooking the Steps & the crowds of sunbathing
Tourists. And here is the Protestant Cemetery
Where Keats & Joseph Severn join hands
Forever under a little shawl of grass
And where Keats's name isn't even on
His gravestone, because it is on Severn's,
. . . .
And you will find poems like "North Point North," by John Koethe (April 30):
There may be nothing for the soul to say
In its defense, except to describe the way
It came to find itself at the impasse
Morning reveals in the glass--
The road that led away from home to here,
That began in wonderment and hope,
But that ended in the long slope
Down to loneliness and the fear of fear.
There is more, much more, to this poem (the editors seem to have a penchant for long poems), but let this suffice. There is no more distinctive voice in American poetry today than that of John Koethe, but all of these poems are written by poets with distinctive voices. What more could you want? Everyday of the year.


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