Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary

Henry Hitchings

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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 A Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the YearIn Samuel Johnson undertook the Herculean task of writing the first comprehensive English dictionary Imagining he could complete the job in three yea

  • Title: Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary
  • Author: Henry Hitchings
  • ISBN: 9780312426200
  • Page: 426
  • Format: Paperback
  • A Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the YearIn 1746, Samuel Johnson undertook the Herculean task of writing the first comprehensive English dictionary Imagining he could complete the job in three years, Johnson in fact took than eight, and the dictionary itself turned out to be as much a work of literature as it was an invaluable reference In alphabetized chapters,A Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the YearIn 1746, Samuel Johnson undertook the Herculean task of writing the first comprehensive English dictionary Imagining he could complete the job in three years, Johnson in fact took than eight, and the dictionary itself turned out to be as much a work of literature as it was an invaluable reference In alphabetized chapters, from Adventurous to Zootomy, Henry Hitchings tells of Johnson s toil and triumph and offers a closer look at the definitions themselves, which were alive with invention, poetry, erudition, and, at times, hilarious imprecision The story of Johnson s adventure into the essence of words is an entertainment that sparkles on every page The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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    One thought on “Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary

    1. Phillip on said:

      Hitchings' book is as much a promotion of Johnson's dictionary, as a piece of literature to read, as it is a biography of Dr. Johnson. It does both well. Of particular interest to me. I had forgotten about the significance and culture of the coffee house during Johnson's time. The reminder of this bit of history makes the running gag in Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" about coffee houses being everywhere that the English were that much funnier. In his great buddy novel Pynchon shows Mason and Dixo [...]

    2. David on said:

      We know that it's possible to write entertainingly about the process of writing a dictionary -- Simon Winchester has done it twice. Henry Hitchings doesn't have the knack. The word that comes to mind that best describes this book is "plodding". The copy I bought was remaindered at $3.88. I can't say I was surprised.A dull, pedestrian, aimless book. Though I dare say the scholarship was accurate. Hitchings has recently come out with another book: "The Secret Life of Words". According toThe New Yo [...]

    3. Leigh on said:

      This is a story of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary – the first comprehensive dictionary of English, which was published in 1755.We start with a brief history of Johnson’s early life: his very modest upbringing in Litchfield; his education – and his obsessive reading habits; and his subsequent move to London where he worked as a jobbing writer. We hear about the Dictionary’s beginnings too, about the London booksellers who commissioned Johnson to write it, his reluctance to take it on, an [...]

    4. Brian Willis on said:

      An eminently readable book on a topic which could be pedantic and a heavy slog, this book also serves as a very brief biography of Johnson focusing on his achievement of the first English language dictionary. Organized in "alphabetical order", the chapters are titled with words from the dictionary that fit the topic of the chapter. The book is insightful and interesting, and certainly serves as a good substitute for reading Johnson's dictionary. It feels as if one breezily thumbed through pages [...]

    5. Edward Sullivan on said:

      An engaging and enjoyable multifaceted account that is a partial biography of Johnson, a history of English lexicography, a social history of the author's and the publisher's trade in eighteenth-century England. Hitchings also discusses the remarkable influence of Johnson's dictionary from its 1755 first edition to the present.

    6. Debbi on said:

      With the exception of a few delicious quotes of his, I knew very little about Dr. Johnson and his making of the dictionary before I read Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. I learned quite a few tidbits and got a bit of a feel for the man himself. He was a larger-than-life type personality and it seems that his dictionary reflects that.Since I have a fascination with dictionaries and lexicography I found it to be an interesting book but not altogether capti [...]

    7. Adam Thomas on said:

      The fascinating history of one of the greatest English dictionaries, told partly through its own definitions. Hitchings is not just a historian, but also a tour guide through the dictionary's treasures, showing the personal and cultural contexts of its peculiarities. Highly recommended for discerning dictionary users.

    8. Mike on said:

      Well-written, entertaining stories.Clever, dictionary-like alphabetically-ordered chapters. Helps to recall what each section was about.Notes:3full of bluff confidence19-coz.ead of furnishing convivial merriment to the voluptuous & disssolute, his abilities might have enabled him to excel among the virtuous & wise20terial anxiety of parents23-at Oxford"I bid farewell to Sloth, being resolved henceforth not to listen to her siren strains."25e pinched & narrow world of Breadmarket Stre [...]

    9. Li'l Vishnu on said:

      If a similar vagueness clouds Johnson’s definition of ‘adder’ (‘a serpent, a viper, a poisonous reptile; perhaps of any species’), his definition of ‘tarantula’ is positively opaque. Johnson tell us that it is ‘an insect whose bite is only cured by music’. This curious belief is recorded by Samuel Pepys among others, and had recently been confirmed by a Neapolitan violinist, who had described in the Gentleman’s Magazine his success in curing a man who had been bitten under th [...]

    10. Adam on said:

      This book is likely to be a varied experience depending on whether you have already read -- or at least perused -- Samuel Johnson's dictionary. If you have, I imagine this book will feel like a guided tour through a hall you have already wandered through. If you haven't, it will be more like someone pointing through a large window to various interesting objects in a room you cannot enter. I fall into the latter category, and the chief effect of this book was to make me want to pick up the dictio [...]

    11. Trenchologist on said:

      Really liked the mix of Johnson the man versus Johnson the scholar, what words meant then, what words have fallen into complete obscurity, what common words were somehow decided not to be included in the Dictionary. I didn't like as much the almost pedantic rhythm of the whole, the listing-fashion most of the words covered were recounted in; it's difficult to succinctly describe why, but somehow the book lacked. It wasn't snappy or compelling, for all I enjoyed the theme, the sometime humor and [...]

    12. E. C. Koch on said:

      This is the latest of a string of history-of-the-English-language books I've read recently and Hitchings does a good job here. This book was built out of Hitchings' dissertation, and he skillfully walks the reader through some pertinent issues surrounding the language ante-1755, and offers a description of how Johnson went about his work, while also giving just enough biographical information. Hitchings also catches the reader up on certain 18th-c. social issues, which he addresses by way of som [...]

    13. Bookmarks Magazine on said:

      What Simon Winchester did for the Oxford English Dictionary in The Meaning of Everything (**** Nov/Dec 2003), Hitchings does for its predecessor, Samuel Johnson's dictionary. Hitchings's delightful book is infused with details about the history of lexicography and the English language, and he places the dictionary in the context of Johnson's difficult life and the fame that followed. Cleverly written (though Hitchings misses a few definitions here and there), Defining the World is organized much [...]

    14. Erik on said:

      I may be partial to the Oxford English Dictionary, but I couldn’t help but pick up this slender volume on Johnson’s definitive dictionary that was made and made famous a hundred years before James Murray organized and edited the OED. Author Hitchings nicely charts the lifework of Samuel Johnson by organizing his book into alphabetical chapters. Although his narrative style is nowhere near as captivating as Simon Winchester in the latter’s “The Professor and the Madman” and “The Meani [...]

    15. Jeff Crompton on said:

      This is essential reading for anyone interested in Samuel Johnson and his dictionary, which, warts and all, was the standard English dictionary for 100 years or so. Hitchings does a good job of pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Johnson's extraordinary work. His view can be summed up with one sentence from the first chapter of this book: "Unlike other dictionaries, Johnson's is a work of literature." About halfway through reading this book, I found and downloaded an e-book version of t [...]

    16. Dan Bentley on said:

      Interesting, but in a style obviously written by an academic. You are always studying Johnson, not living with him. He is a character through a lens; a lens which always stays in the picture.Some cool facts, and stories, though.The concept of the book is that each chapter is a word in the dictionary, and it progresses through the alphabetical order. He does it pretty well, though once or twice I thought the chapter was an essay that could have survived anywhere in the book.Essentially a chronolo [...]

    17. Wade on said:

      Interesting history of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language (published in 1755). "More than any other English dictionary, it abounds with stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths. It is, in short, a treasure house." p 196. I guess not surprisingly in telling its history, the author used lots of really big words. To understand a book about the dictionary, I actually needed a dictionaryHere are some of my new favorite words: adscititious (s [...]

    18. Daniel Kukwa on said:

      A compact, delightful biography of both Dr. Johnson and his groundbreaking dictionary. This book indulges in the era's love of literacy, word play, and enlightening exposition. In examining one of history's most famous volumes, Henry Hitchings' work is a savage poke in the eye to anyone who thinks physical books aren't sensual, artisan worksd that the future is solely banal e-books. Dr. Johnson would have a few splendid words to share on the matterd after reading "Dr. Johnson's Dictionary" you m [...]

    19. Amanda Witt on said:

      Good descriptions of the words and Johnson's meanings, though he dismissed words he did not readily understand or think were important to include. 3rd/4th editions cost four pounds and ten shillings, equal to a dental treatment for a year or a new suit. Johnson's quirky explanations are defined as: oats - a grain in England that feeds horses, but in Scotland is expected to support the people'. Even if English horses/Scots stopped eating them, oats would still be oats.

    20. Julie on said:

      Hitchens discusses the life of Johnson in general, but the focus of this book does stay on the dictionary. I found that reading in small increments with the notes bookmarked for reference was the best way for me to tackle this interesting read. At times, the author really got into discussing dictionary definitions to the point of listing them throughout a few pages. Best read in several short sittings I think.

    21. Michael on said:

      Stupendous. When the movie version appears I really hope they decide to film Johnson's selection of his amanuenses in the amped-up style of a mastermind choosing his thieves for a big heist. Starring Timothy Spall as Johnson, probably. I'm thinking Mark Strong as Lord Chesterfield and Brendan Gleason as Boswell? Directed by Guy Ritchie, of course.

    22. Jen on said:

      I found the concept of this book -- the story of how Johnson wrote the first English dictionary -- fascinating. What I didn't find fascinating was Hitchings' writing style or his analysis. Just because Johnson quoted something in his dictionary doesn't mean he endorsed the concept or held the opinion, and Hitchings resorts to that false logic too many times.

    23. Khairul Hezry on said:

      It started well. The first few chapters were interesting but once the author started telling how Johnson got around to compiling words for the dictionary, it became meandering and boring real fast. Imagine my surprise. I would have thought that would be the most interesting part but alas, my attention was lost and I gave up on the book. Pity. It could have been so much better.

    24. april on said:

      I really liked how the chapters all began with a definition from the dictionary (since Hastings used dictionary words for the chapter titles), and they were used alphabetically. I didn't know much about Johnson before this, and through this book I learned a lot about both him and his writing process.

    25. J.E.Lindberg on said:

      The tale of a truly herculean task. Fascinating. Imagine compiling the first comprehensive dictionary of the english language by hand. Samuel Johnson did just that and much more. This is a very readable work on what might otherwise be a not-so-exciting topic at first glance.

    26. J.R. on said:

      Hitchings gives an entertaining and impressive glimpse into Samuel Johnson’s world, his enterprise and its impact on history. The chapters are arranged alphabetically like words in a dictionary and are replete with humor, insight and intelligence.

    27. Jenn on said:

      This took me a while, just because I wanted to digest it all. Definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in words and history. Makes an interesting companion to THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

    28. Converse on said:

      Enjoyable tale of Samuel Johnson writing the first decent English dictionary in the 1740-50s, the dictionary itself, and various Johnson crochets; Also how later writers decried Johnson's work while stealing from it

    29. Pat on said:

      Samuel Johnson's development of a revolutionary dictionary. The author used the Johnson's words selected for the dictionary as a guide to his life and personality. A terrific book, if not a little slow.

    30. Jodi on said:

      22 May 2010 -- the vocabulary used in this book was naturally amazing and it was a great adventure to read. Kept my Oxford dictionary by my side throughout. Impressed by Dr. Johnson's dictionary and have a new respect for the art of dictionary compilation.

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