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Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 29, 2005

4.5 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For the 250th anniversary of Dr. Samuel Johnson's most famous achievement, Hitchings's charming philology-as-biography shows Johnson to be no mere compiler of words but, as he himself put it, "a writer of dictionaries." Authoritative dictionaries for French and Italian were compiled by official academies, but English's first proper dictionary fell to a university dropout and failed provincial schoolmaster turned Grub Street hack—long before he became the Great Cham. The work began as a purely commercial venture at the suggestion of a bookseller-publisher, Johnson labored under less than ideal conditions, assisted only by a group of eclectic and eccentric amanuenses, and burdened by his wife's declining health and his own melancholia. In the end, his four-volume, 20-pound opus defined more than 42,773 common words and technical terms from all disciplines, supported with some 110,000 quotations drawn from English literature. Besides contemporary illustrations by the great Hogarth and Reynolds, Hitchings's book reproduces sample pages of Johnson's annotated reference material and the first edition of the dictionary. Though not as sensational as the bestselling account of another dictionary, The Professor and the Madam, British writer Hitchings's debut puts the scholarly labor in illuminating perspective along with its entirely human creator. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

James Boswell's biography has preserved for the ages the reputation of Samuel Johnson, but the dictionary for which Johnson was known in his own time receives little attention therein, because Boswell did not meet Johnson until 1763, eight years after the dictionary's publication. Hitchings' sprightly book about the dictionary gives a full picture of Johnson during a difficult decade of melancholy toil. More than twenty English dictionaries preceded Johnson's, but his surpassed them all, and was itself supplanted only in 1928, by the first Oxford English Dictionary-which used nearly two thousand of Johnson's definitions. In alphabetically ordered chapters given Johnson's own headwords, from "Adventurous" to "Zootomy," Hitchings details the magnitude of Johnson's labors and the achievements of the dictionary, from Johnson's "scrupulous care over shades of meaning"-defining "world," for example, in sixteen different senses-to the inclusion of a hundred thousand illustrative quotations, culled from his voracious reading.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (October 19, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374113025
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374113025
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,685,348 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Those who remember Samuel Johnson remember him through Boswell's vigorous and detailed biography, not through Johnson's literary works themselves. There are few experts steeped in eighteenth century literature who are closely familiar with Johnson's essays, poems, dramas, biographies of poets, and evaluations of the plays of Shakespeare. Most of us know, though, that a woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs; one doesn't wonder that the task is done well, but rather that it is done at all. That's Johnson, speaking in Boswell's book, and countless other memorable episodes are there that are part of common culture. Johnson's greatest work is also seldom read today but is the foundation of a great deal of literary thought and philosophy. His _Dictionary of the English Language_ was published exactly 250 years ago. Henry Hitchings, in his book _Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary_ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), has mined the dictionary in many ways to show that it is a treasure house: "More than any other English dictionary, it abounds with stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths." It also shows Johnson's interests, beliefs, prejudices, preachiness, and occasional ignorance in ways that Boswell could not. This is a delightful book, a lightly-written, loving tribute to Johnson and his great work, full of insights about the man and his times.

Hitchings has included many biographical facts to lead up to Johnson as lexicographer, but his dictionary is always central. The dictionary is astonishingly the work of this one man, toiling in his London garret (now a museum) and always criticizing himself for his sloth. Johnson's choice of words and his definitions of them often show the turns of his mind.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Defining the World does for Dr. Johnson's 18th century dictionary what Simon Winchester did in The Meaning of Everything for the Oxford English Dictionary. A popular, readable and enjoyable history. Hitchen's doesn't have the "spark" of Winchester's prose, he's only 30 and it's his first book, but he is well versed in his subject-he has a recent PhD on it in fact-the book is very well written. Most memorable for me were the descriptions of life in London in the middle to late 18th century and its many floppy characters. As befitting a book about a dictionary, there is substantial discussion of words and definitions and the many permutations-a seemingly dry subject but in the hands of Hitchings, under the guidance of Johnson's raw material, is really very funny and interesting. Unlike the OED, the Dictionary doesn't have a dramatic creation story, other than Johnson's colorful character which is as much mythology as reality. If for no other reason than I keep running into "Doctor Johnson" and his dictionary everywhere I turn, this book provided enjoyable context on what it's all about. As my studies will in the future focus on the 18th century, Dr Johnson has become an indespensible piece of culture to know about.
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Format: Hardcover
This book gets off to rather a slow start. The first 45 pages - about a sixth of the book - tell us of Johnson's life before he started work on the Dictionary. True, it links some of the events of Johnson's life to definitions he will give in his Dictionary; but such links are relatively few: the biographical element and the not unfamiliar social history of 18th century London predominate. That is pleasant enough, but one is impatient for the story of the Dictionary to begin. But when it does start, the book becomes really interesting and indeed fascinating.

Initially Johnson hoped to `stabilise' the English language, to exclude `low terms' from it, and, through many of the elevating passages he chose to illustrate the use of a word, to promote education, religion or morality. Later, however, he felt the responsibility to record how English was actually being used in his time - that being the view which predominates among modern lexicographers. If he has to include words of which he really disapproves, he notes that they are `cant'. But he happily included some robust slang expressions of his time and certain vigorous words of abuse. He was suitably idiosyncratic in deciding which words are cant (bamboozle, nervous, the drink stout, flirtation), which are `low' (ignoramus, simpleton) and which are not. He also had a great dislike for words recently imported from France, though he includes them: bourgeois, unique, champagne, cutlet, trait, ruse, finesse. He would of course have known what a huge range of French words came into the English language with the Norman Conquest; but for him any word, of whatever origin, that had been used by the Elizabethans had a respectable pedigree.

Johnson's methodology is interesting.
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Format: Hardcover
After I read and enjoyed The Meaning of Everything, tackling this book (which I saw reviewed in The Weekly Standard) was a natural "second step" for me. Hitchings includes sufficient background material on Samuel Johnson to enlighten the uninformed without losing sight of his major goal, which is to demonstrate how Johnson tackled the daunting task of compiling an English dictionary in the 18th century with few models and minimal help available. Cleverly, Hitchings uses actual definitions of words from Johnson as the equivalents of chapter titles (I wonder just how long he had to fish through the dictionary to find words and definitions to match the progress of his narrative). An excellent effort.
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