Happy 308th birthday, Dr Johnson

Today, on the 308th anniversary of his birth in Litchfield, England, Google presented a Doodle of Samuel Johnson, the great 18th Century man of letters who is the most quoted person in the English language after Shakespeare.

What Google highlights is one of Johnson’s greatest achievements, A Dictionary of the English Language, an enormous work of scholarship which was published in 1755.

But Johnson is famous for far more than this. He was perhaps the greatest literary critic in English, a major poet in English, a minor poet in Latin and Greek, a novelist, a biographer, a journalist, and one of the most entertaining conversationalists who ever lived. His life, by James Boswell, is also one of the greatest biographies in the language. But his Dictionary is enough to guarantee him undying fame.

Nowadays, most people Google unfamiliar words. But the answers that pop up in an instant on the screen are based on Johnson’s dictionary – and his many followers. Someone had to list those words, define them, compile their various usages, and suggest their etymologies. Although some dictionaries already existed, Johnson was the first Englishman to compile one in a systematic and professional way.  

According to one of his modern biographers, Walter Jackson Bate, the Dictionary "easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time."

Johnson had a self-deprecating sense of humour, and salted the Dictionary with sly digs at his work. He defined a lexicographer as “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge” and the adjective “dull” as “Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work”.

In fact, newspaper articles about Johnson’s Google Doodle depict him as a comedian by cherrypicking a few of the more eccentric amongst his 43,000 definitions. “Oats”, for instance, was defined as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people”. And “excise” was defined as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid”.

What sets Johnson apart from other scholars, though, is his enormous humanity. He was no mere “harmless drudge” but a giant of a man (physically, too) who transmuted his own psychological and moral suffering into some of the finest prose in the English language.

Johnson is one of those many-faceted personalities whom every generation views from a different angle. Today, his heartfelt, if anguished, Anglican piety is altogether ignored. But he wrote many prayers and meditations, many of them appealing to God to give him patience in his black moods and various ailments. Here is a short “prayer” composed long before his 308th birthday:

This is my fifty-sixth birth-day, the day on which I have concluded fifty five years.

I have outlived many friends. I have felt many sorrows. I have made few improvements. Since my resolution formed last Easter I have made no advancement in knowledge or in goodness; nor do I recollect that I have endeavoured it. I am dejected but not hopeless.

O God for Jesus Christ's sake have mercy upon me.

In one sense, this melancholy birthday prayer is a better memorial to our greatest lexicographer than Google’s giggles, because Johnson regarded his Dictionary more as tragedy than as comedy. The “Preface”, a masterpiece of scholarship and prose, concludes with his famous description of his unremitting toil over nine years:

... the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow: and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed. ... I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.

Perhaps more than anyone else in English literature, Johnson understood that suffering is part of life, that suffering has a mysterious meaning in the divine plan that governs the world, and that suffering is the furnace of creativity. He was a wise and humane man and Google did well to commemorate his birth.  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 


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