The Ecphorizer

A Harmless Drudgery Revived
John Cumming

Issue #03 (November 1981)


Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language is back in print. Barnes & Noble has issued a facsimile edition of the work, bound in one volume, folio. The print quality of the took is only fair, and the quality of the paper is mediocre, but if one wishes to examine the text of Johnson's first edition (1755), this may he the most economical way. The price of the reprint ranges from $75 to $100 (depending on binding) as opposed to an original at $2500 to $3000.

[quoteright'/>This is a took that rewards the browser. Unlike the bloodless, relentlessly scientific compilations of today, Johnson's was a very personal work, noteworthy not only as the first really comprehensive dictionary of the language but also as one wherein the great writer employed the full force of his wit and knowledge. Some of its definitions are famous: "Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." Or: "Lexicographer. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge."

Interesting words that have fallen into disuse, and are not to be found in dictionaries of ordinary dimensions, are here in great numbers.

Grammicaster. A mean verbal pedant, a low grammarian.
Politicaster. A petty ignorant pretender to politicks.
Tonguepad. A great talker.
Ronion. A fat, bulky woman
Blowze. A ruddy fat-faced wench.
Crack-rope. A fellow that deserves hanging.
Stockjobber. A low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares in the funds.

About other words, Johnson had strong opinions. Of "ingannation" (cheat, fraud, etc.) he wrote "a word neither used nor necessary." "To keen," meaning to sharpen, he denounced as "an unauthorized word." "Vastidity" (immensity) was "a barbarous word." Previous dictionaries being inadequate, Johnson drew on his vast memory of literary works to find words and infer their meanings. It is clear that up to this time, writers took great liberties with the language.

To the historian, the chief satisfaction of study is the contemplation of irony. There is irony in this work, in the way in which time and changing events have turned the meanings of words.

Redcoat. A name of contempt for a soldier.
Ethnick. Heathen; pagan; not Jewish; not Christian.
Flasher. A man of more appearance of wit than reality.
Flirtation. A quick sprightly notion. A cant word among women
Monsieur. A term of reproach for a Frenchman.
Lumber. Anything useless or combersome; anything of more bulk than value.
Splash. To daub with dirt in great quantities.
Peeler. A robber; a plunderer. (Over two generations later, Sir Robert Peel organized the Irish constabulary, and police came to be called Peelers, as well as Bobbies, after him.)

Some entries are simply odd.

Curship. Dogship; meanness; scoundrelship.
Discalceration. The act of palling off the shoes.
Demersed. Plunged; drowned.
Dugtrick. An ill turn; surly or brutal treatment.
Bona roba. A whore.
Laced mutton. An old word for a whore.
Humicubation. The act of lying an the ground.
Pessary. Is an oblong form of medicine, made to thrust up into the uterus upon some extraordinary occasions. (Let the OED match THAT definition)

Rotgut, a word used in Mensa as a generic term for certain homemade wines, is given in Johnson's as "bad beer." (Anent bed beer, I am reminded of an epitaph that goes, "Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, who caught his death by drinking cold small beer. Soldiers, be wise from his untimely fall, and, when ye're hot, drink strong or none at all." This I got from a work much junior to Johnson's, Epigrams and Epitaphs compiled by Aubrey Stewart and published in 1897. Old books are a joy forever.) "Stingo" is defined in Johnson's as "old beer." Beer itself is given as, "liquor made from malt and hops." (Liquor in turn is "strong drink.") The word "lite" is not found in Johnson's, but the idea is expressed well under the entry for adulteration.

"Butter-tooth" is "the great, broad foretooth." "Lovetoy" isn't some sort of lascivious machine, but, quaintly, "small presents given by lovers." "Eame" is "Uncle: a word still used in the wilder parts of Staffordshire."

Snast. The snuff of a candle.
Sprunt. Anything that is short and will not bend easily.
Sooterkin. A kind of false birth fabled to be produced by the Dutch women from sitting over their stoves.

Johnson's was still a new book when men like Colden, Garden, Bartram, Kalm, and others began to develop Carl Linnaeus' ideas for classifying and putting into order man's understanding of the natural world. How far they had to go is apparent from the definitions of names of various beasties that Johnson recorded.

Cat. A domestick animal that catches mice...
Mouse. The smallest of all beasts; a little animal haunting houses and cornfields, destroyed by cats.
Rat. An animal of the mouse kind that infests houses and ships.
Stoat. A well stinking animal.

Later, Johnson helped to introduce Linnaeus' method to England. I suspect that be nay have been driven by an awareness of the absurdly vague descriptions of various animals that he himself had put down in his dictionary.

The original work contained almost 2300 pages of definitions, and served as the standard dictionary for a century. Of special note is the sole entry under X: "X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

This short essay can only begin to convey an appreciation of Johnson's Dictionary you have to see the work itself. Incidentally, it defines "essay as "a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested 10 piece." I wouldn't have it any other way. 


Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.




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