September 18, 2017

Google celebrates the birthday of Samuel Johnson.



"As a popular search engine marks the great lexicographer’s birthday, it’s a good time for some defining questions. Can you get them right without googling?" (The Guardian). ("What is Johnson defining here? 'To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.'") I got 5/10.

"Who was Samuel Johnson? The father of the modern dictionary's funniest entries" (The Telegraph). ("Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.")

"Samuel Johnson: Who is this literary figure, what did he do and why is he so important?"
(Independent).
The primary reason for Johnson’s enduring appeal though, outside of his own remarkable achievements in print, is surely the ongoing popularity of James Boswell’s fantastically detailed Life of Samuel Johnson (1791).... Boswell recalls such delightful comic incidents as Johnson good-naturedly dismissing Burke as “a vile Whig”, rebuking Goldsmith for being “loose in his principles” and declining a repeat visit backstage to visit Garrick at the theatre because, “the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities.” His opinions on everything from remarriage ("the triumph of hope over experience") to women vicars* and the merits of Alexander Pope are preserved for the ages in a work whose value cannot be overstated.
Don't forget Johnson's "Grammar of the English Tongue." That's the one I keep in my Kindle. Sample:

Of the ARTICLE.

The English have two articles, an or a, and the.

AN, A. 

A has an indefinite signification, and means one, with some reference to more; as This is a good book; that is, one among the books that are good; He was killed by a sword; that is, some sword; This is a better book for a man than a boy; that is, for one of those that are men than one of those that are boys; An army might enter without resistance; that is, any army.

In the senses in which we use a or an in the singular, we speak in the plural without an article; as these are good books.

I have made an the original article, because it is only the Saxon an, or æn, one, applied to a new use, as the German ein, and the French un; the n being cut off before a consonant in the speed of utterance.

Grammarians of the last age direct, that an should be used before h; whence it appears that the English anciently asperated less. An is still used before the silent h; as an herb, an honest man; but otherwise a; as

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse. Shakespeare.

An or a can only be joined with a singular: the correspondent plural is the noun without an article, as, I want a pen, I want pens; or with the pronominal adjective some, as, I want some pens.

THE.

The has a particular and definite signification.

The fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world. Milton.

That is, that particular fruit, and this world in which we live. So, He giveth fodder for the cattle, and green herbs for the use of man; that is, for those beings that are cattle, and his use that is man.

The is used in both numbers.

I am as free as Nature first made man, Ere the base laws of servitude began, When wild in woods the noble savage ran. Dryden.

Many words are used without articles; as

1. Proper names, as John, Alexander, Longinus, Aristarchus, Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London. GOD is used as a proper name.

2. Abstract names, as blackness, witch-craft, virtue, vice, beauty, ugliness, love, hatred, anger, good-nature, kindness.

3. Words in which nothing but the mere being of any thing is implied: This is not beer, but water; this is not brass, but steel.
______________________

* "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

63 comments:

Ralph L said...

The Methodists and Dissenters had female preachers, no Vicars.

In college, some friends had a cat named "Boswell's Life of Johnson."

John Lynch said...

What? A dead white male?

EDH said...

"Google celebrates the birthday of Samuel Johnson."

I always confuse him with Laurence Fishburne.

tcrosse said...

Dr Johnson Meets Blackadder

J. Farmer said...

Eh. Still prefer Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary."

Dictionary
n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

Trumpit said...

When writing, I frequently have to decide whether to use the definite or indefinite article, or to drop the article altogether. Is it better to say "The defendant knows better," or "Defendant knows better"? I decided that it had more impact without the article, so I went that way.

rehajm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Expat(ish) said...

Boswell's book kicked off my long love of biography. At the time (8th grade) I did not find a very well written book, nor very remarkable, but it changed the course of my reading - from 99% SciFi to 70% SciFi, 20% fiction, 10% history/biography.

Remarkable.

-XC

rehajm said...

As lexicographers go I celebrate the birthday of Susie Dent.

It's November 19th.

Quaestor said...

This is my favorite Johnsonian word — Jobbernowl: Loggerhead; blockhead. I've read some 18th-century literature in my time, I'd say more than most persons with my schooling, Fielding, Adam Smith, Berkeley, Hume, Robertson, Sheridan, Goldsmith among them. I've tried to read Tristram Shandy several times and I am still reading Gibbon — Johnson is well known for his acerbic wit (No, madam, you smell, I stink.) but he isn't a patch on Gibbon — and I've never read this word outside Johnson lexicon. I wonder where he got it? Fleet Street argot, possibly. Wonderful word. I'm certain there are one or two Althouse regulars who need it applied. Another surprising thing is its synonym, loggerhead, a word I've never seen applied to anything other than a turtle, which may explain why it is so applied. I've assumed the word had something to do with the creature's appearance, since the other snapping turtle is called an alligator snapper because of its serrated carapace and tail. But now it seems its thus named for its stupid pugnacity.

rhhardin said...

I had a nice Samuel Johnson story but it turns out to have been Sydney Smith.

Widmerpool said...

I recall that I thoroughly enjoyed reading W. Jackson Bate's biography of Johnson many years ago. Looks like it's still the definitive modern biography. Of course, as I recall, the book contains many memorable Johnson quotes. One that I remember after all these years is Johnson's response when an acquaintance asked why he continued to give money to beggars. After all, his acquaintance noted, they will simply continue to be beggars. Johnson responded, "So that they may beg ON."

Hagar said...

Hah! 8/10!

John Nowak said...

I have heard the phrase "at loggerheads" (meaning unable to reach an agreement) many times, but I've never heard "loggerhead" used as a noun or adjective.

I can see how it might have evolved, though.

Fernandinande said...

Dictionary example for "vibrant":

"The sidewalks along the vibrant area of restaurants and shops were strewn with glass from broken windows."

Ann Althouse said...

"Another surprising thing is its synonym, loggerhead, a word I've never seen applied to anything other than a turtle, which may explain why it is so applied."

The plural comes up all the time in "at loggerheads."

Note the David Sedaris story "Loggerheads" (with actual turtles plus the abstract meaning implied).

From the OED: "pl. in various phrases. to fall, get, go to loggerheads: to come to blows. to be at loggerheads: to be contending about differences of opinion; also, rarely, to come to loggerheads. [The use is of obscure origin; perhaps the instrument described in sense 3, or something similar, may have been used as a weapon.]"

1671 R. Head & F. Kirkman Eng. Rogue IV. i. sig. B4 They frequently quarrell'd about their Scicilian wenches, and indeed..they seem..to be worth the going to Logger-heads for.
1681 Arraignm.,Tryal & Condemnation S. Colledge 49 So we went to loggerheads together, I think that was the word, or Fisty-cuffs.
1755 T. Smollett tr. Cervantes Don Quixote I. i. viii. 41 The others..went to loggerheads with Sancho, whom they soon overthrew.
1806 T. Jefferson Writings (1830) IV. 63 In order to destroy one member of the administration, the whole were to be set to loggerheads.

CJinPA said...

Kind of fun to explore the work of a dead white guy without looking over one's shoulder. But the day is young.

Ann Althouse said...

For the singular word, OED begins with " A thick-headed or stupid person; a blockhead."

It's in Shakespeare: "1598 Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost iv. iii. 202 Ah you whoreson loggerhead, you were borne to do me shame."

We've been forgetting to say "whoreson" too, by the way.

Ann Althouse said...

He's not just a "a dead white guy," he's a a dead white guy who's known for making at least one very sexist remark (the one in the footnote in the post).

Quaestor said...

I have heard the phrase "at loggerheads"

So have I. I wonder how it escaped my notice.

Some examples

J. Farmer said...

He's not just a "a dead white guy," he's a a dead white guy who's known for making at least one very sexist remark (the one in the footnote in the post).

As for sexist remarks, I always thought Johnson's best was, "Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little." Sounds like something Paglia could have written.

Quaestor said...

For the singular word, OED begins with " A thick-headed or stupid person; a blockhead."

If one looks hard enough loggerhead is one of those words with which English is well-leavened. And as an adjective, its use can be obscure nonetheless, as in this cute little killer? What's so loggerheaded about it?

Mike Sylwester said...

I read about half of Boswell's biography of Johnson.

When he attended school, he learned Latin so well that he wrote superb poetry in Latin. He intended to teach Latin, but he apparently suffered from Tourette's Syndrome and he also was ugly, and so he was not able to maintain his students' respect.

Therefore he turned to make his living as a writer. Here he made some important innovations that deserve more credit.

Johnson basically invented subscription magazines. He started by writing free-lance articles for publications that were funded by wealthy patrons. Many of his articles were Latin poems. After he developed his own reputation, he began writing pamphlets that his loyal readers would buy. Then he solicited those readers to pay annual subscriptions for periodic newsletters. Then he developed a variety of such subscription periodicals.

Johnson was the first person who ever established such a business making money by selling subscription periodicals. Also, the periodicals' contents -- the variety of articles -- set the model for periodic magazines.

I think he might have begun selling advertisements to place in his publications too, but I'm not sure about that. I read that first part of Boswell's biography a few years ago, but Johnson's money-making publishing innovations are what have remained in my mind.

Likewise, Johnson wrote his dictionary largely as a money-making enterprise. He was always trying to think up ways to earn money by selling his knowledge of language, literature and culture.

I stopped reading the biography only because I became too busy with other things in my life. I have a couple of modern biographies of Johnson that I intend to read. This publishing aspect of Johnson's life interests me a lot.

Lem said...

I thought the word 'signification' might exist but I don't recall ever seeing it in print nor on line.

I think that's significant.

CJinPA said...

"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

The future former mayor of London explored this in 2009: "Dr Johnson was a slobbering, sexist xenophobe who understood human nature"


http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/borisjohnson/6186117/Dr-Johnson-was-a-slobbering-sexist-xenophobe-who-understood-human-nature.html

CJinPA said...

"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

I've heard the second half of this quote before, but not describing a woman preacher. A one-legged tap dancer, maybe.

John Nowak said...

>So have I. I wonder how it escaped my notice.

It's easy to miss stuff like that, especially in this example.

I'd guess that at one point people would look at other people arguing about something trivial and say, "they are loggerheads," but how did that become "at loggerheads", as though it was a place where people famously argued?

Quaestor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Tuffnell said...

I always thought Bloggingheads was a play off of loggerheads

William said...

There's very little historical evidence that an interest in literature and an insistence on proper grammar makes one a better person, but literary types like to think that such qualities define the righteous and the wise. They would, wouldn't they. In fact, it does seeem that, more often than not, a person's worth as a literary figure is at loggerheads with his merit as a human being. The exception to this is Samuel Johnson. His literary and grammatical virtues were consistent with his wisdom and kindness. He was literally a good man who was made better by his literary and lexicongraphical struggles. He's the patron saint of English literature,

themightypuck said...

I always liked Moldbug's discussion of what he calls Dr. Johnson's hypothesis: "The first Whig was the Devil".

Unknown said...

I think it was Dr Johnson who said that no man but a fool ever wrote for anything except money. Time to use the Althouse Amazon potal everyone!

Quaestor said...

We've been forgetting to say "whoreson" too, by the way.

Could breathe new life into the thousand deaths of Kenny McCormick.

Mike Sylwester said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Sylwester said...

One of Johnson's major interests was researching and writing about the lives of poets. He began doing this in about 1740, when he was about 30 years old. He would write short biographies of poets and publish them in his periodicals. Eventually he assembled 52 biographies into a book titled Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, which he published in 1780, when he was about 70 years old.

I suspect that he began this special interest of his because he was looking for ways to make money by writing. He wondered how previous poets had made their livings.

One of his first such biographies was The Life of Mr. Richard Savage, which he published as a separate book in 1744. Savage spent the last years of his life in debtor's prison and even died there. So, Savage's life provided a good example of how NOT to live your life if you want to live as a writer.

An example, described by Johnson, of a poet who made a rather good living as a writer was Alexander Pope, who depended largely on wealthy patrons. Pope's profitable publications included commentaries on Shakespeare's plays.

Johnson took that idea of Pope's and ran with it. In 1765, Johnson published his authoritative Plays of William Shakespeare, which became a big-seller.

Scott M said...

Isn't it more important to find out if he owned slaves? Or did business with banks that funded colonialism? Or was gay? Or hated gays? None of what he did matter, you know.

themightypuck said...

Oh look. Nothing on the internet ever dies. Dr Johnson

exiledonmainstreet said...

I take exception to Johnson's definition of oats: "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

I'm not Scottish, but I like oatmeal.

The Godfather said...

It seems from the "An" discussion that in Johnson's time "herb" was pronounced in England as it is now pronounced in the US: ERB, rather than as it is now pronounced in England: HERB. Another example of the fact that English English is a degraded tongue, contrary to Prof. Higgins..

Quaestor said...

"The sidewalks along the vibrant area of restaurants and shops were strewn with glass from broken windows."

What caused the windows to break? The vibrations?

William said...

This story is not true, but that should not prejudice the hearer against its ultimate fidelity to the spirit of Dr. Johnson. When younger, he was very poor and wore clothes that were in tatters. He was in the company of a well born woman who remarked to him that his penis was sticking out. His reply: "You flatter yourself, madam. My penis is hanging out."

Dude1394 said...

I expect he was a racist and should be expunged from our culture.

Quaestor said...

"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Althouse calls this sexist. Perhaps. But from my experience, I'd call it prescient. Women in the pulpit are much more common in our day than in Johnson's (in Quaker meetings mostly, I presume) and certainly not in Johnson's preferred Anglican rite. When I was a churchgoer I noticed one consistency in the sermons given by females of the cloth — banality. Watery psychobabble interspersed with biblical non-sequiturs. This is not to imply that the clerical mansplaining is any better, but having been barred from sermonizing from Saint Paul to the Reformation one would expect the newly ordainable women to seek to out-do their male predecessors. But in this case, equality has meant equally canine in bipedality.

(reposted minus the redundancy)

(If Dr. Johnson had needed to edit himself as often as I, his run-in with Blackadder would have been of no consequence.)

Freeman Hunt said...

What's the name of the old movie where the husband imprisons his wife's lover, and the imprisoned man reads "Life of Samuel Johnson?"

mockturtle said...

I keep Boswell's Life... on my kindle and return to it from time to time. Johnson was a clever enough chap and clearly accomplished but hardly fascinating. I prefer the wit and wisdom of Disraeli.

tcrosse said...

In keeping with the theme of today's comments, let me say that I have absolutely no interest in Johnson or Boswell, and I want the whole world to know it.

Quaestor said...

I expect he was a racist and should be expunged from our culture.

Perhaps not. Johnson recorded no entry for nigger or even negro, though the Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic used them both unashamedly. It's impossible for Johnson not to have heard one or the other. His residence at 17 Gough Square is enclosed by Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. During Johnson's life, Fleet Street was known more for slave trading than journalism, and Fetter Lane got it name from the manacles used to restrain the wretches. One might conclude he left those words out of his dictionary because of their distasteful nature.

Daniel Jackson said...

Thought Loggerheads referred to tortoises mating: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD1lhmS8bmQ

They tend to start by butting heads loudly and forcibly.

Bad Lieutenant said...

From

Language Log: At loggerheads

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001043.html


Speaking for myself, I learned only a few years ago that loggerheads were "iron instruments with long handles and balls or bulbs at the end", and then realized that being "at loggerheads" might involve a metaphorical reference to fist-fighting -- arms being the handles and fists being the balls or bulbs at the end. The occasion was reading in Patrick O'Brian's The Commodore: "...They had been sparring, in a spirit of fun, with loggerheads, those massy iron balls with long handles to be carried red-hot from the fire and plunged into buckets of tar or pitch so that the substance might be melted with no risk of flame. 'They are sober now, sir; and penitent, the creatures.'" [This is one of the terms covered at Gibbons Burke's page Nautical Expressions in the Vernacular].

Before reading O'Brian, I always thought of "being at loggerheads" as a relatively immobile sort of head-to-head grappling, sort of like two turtles pushing against one another, or two logs bumping ends, though I had never formulated the idea consciously.

Lem said...

We had a game as non-English speaking kids of adding the ending 'ation' to Spanish words pretending we were speaking English.

Darrell said...

Whoresonation.

Quaestor said...

To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.

That's Johnson defining the verb to worm.

Worming is a pretty common practice among persons with pets or livestock, as in today is the 15th; we must worm the horses. meaning administration of some form of parasiticide. Johnson's definition evidently refers to an anatomical feature of a dogs mouth, probably the frenulum linguae. There is a surgical procedure called a lingual frenectomy which involves cutting or removing the frenulum under the tongue to correct some forms of speech impediment.

Quaestor said...

Whoresonation.

Not going to replace debasement anytime soon, methinks.

Lem said...

A friend of mine says he was a gay aristocrat... that might explain the woman preacher quote?

tcrosse said...

Whoresonation has whoresonance.

William said...

Johnson suffered from scrofula. Scrofula is a tubercular illness that is passed on by the mother's milk. When you have been poisoned by your mother's milk, you have good reason to doubt the ultimate benevolence of the universe.......Johnson was wrong headed about a lot of things, but he made a conscientious effort to treat people with kindness and decency. This is all the more remarkable when you take into consideration that nature and society so rarely treated him with kindness or sympathy. I reiterate my earlier remark that Dr. Johnson is the patron saint of English literature.

SeanF said...

Lem: We had a game as non-English speaking kids of adding the ending 'ation' to Spanish words pretending we were speaking English.

Funny. We added 'o' to the ends of English words to pretend we were speaking Spanish.

exiledonmainstreet said...

Lem said...
A friend of mine says he was a gay aristocrat..."

Huh? Johnson?

Nope.

vanderleun said...

Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

And we are surprised by this strange phenomenon daily right here.

Quaestor said...

A friend of mine says he was a gay aristocrat

Lem's friend deserves to have his nose caught in a suddenly shutting unabridged OED, somewhere near nincompoop — a fool, a trifler.

On the other hand, someone who encountered English literature only briefly might get Johnson the Georgian lexicographer confused with Jonson the Elizabethan dramatist.

gadfly said...

Remembering Samuel Johnson brings back the difficult English Lit class pushed onto all Freshmen "way back when!" As best I can remember, Johnson's writings were a way into Shakespeare. I got through it all including an essay on Johnson but the course didn't help my GPA much.

Dr Weevil said...

Quaestor:
The man who said "No, madam, you smell, I stink" was classicist Richard Porson, not Samuel Johnson.

Anonymous said...

"Isn't it more important to find out if he owned slaves?"

Johnson had a free black manservant, Francis Barber. The relationship was respectful but affectionate on both sides, and Johnson provided for Barber in his will.