Johnson’s words

Samuel JohnsonI have recently been reading through the David Crystal anthology of words from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (Penguin, 2006), attempting to cross-reference it with entries in the Jack Lynch anthology (Levenger Press, 2004), comparing how the two editors chose their selections, and to see how the book designers chose to present them. Yes, I know: reading dictionaries isn’t a common pastime, but if you love words, then you do it.

In part, I’m doing so for the sheer delight of the reading (Johnson’s wit shines through in so many of the entries), and as a measure of the differences in book design, but also with an odd project in mind: The Word-of-the-day From Johnson. I had the notion of transcribing a single word at random every day, and posting it online, on and social media. Not something that seems to have been done before, as far as I can tell.

I’ve previously written about how much I enjoy Johnson’s dictionary, and how I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading, not merely bibliophiles, logophiles and lexicographers. However, there is no reasonably-priced version of the complete dictionary with its 40,000-plus entries, just various selections. As good as the abridgments are, readers will soon ache, as I do, to read more than the limited number of definitions provided in these.

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Books, writers, words, and competencies

Oxford English DictionaryI have always believed that any good, competent and credible writer can be judged (if judge people we must, and yet we do) by the books on his or her desk. Yes, books: printed hardcopy, paper and ink. I’ll go into why books are vastly superior to online sources a bit later (although I suspect my readers already know why…).

Although I am no longer in the media or much of an active writer these days, I believe I can still determine the craft, the credibility and dedication of a writer simply by a quick glance at their library. That’s because good writers have a library to which they refer. Words, and words about words, matter to them.

For a writer or editor not to be passionate about words, not to continue to read and learn about them, not to to delight in them, is like an architect not to be passionate about wood and steel. Or a musician not to be passionate about the materials of which the instrument is constructed. A cook not to be passionate about the ingredients that make up the dish. Good writers care about words. This is true whether the writer be in advertising, technical writing, PR, journalism, a blogger, a poet or a novelist.

And it’s not just words by themselves, but how they play together, how they glide or grate, how they tangle or spin. Good writers also care about grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. Even the typefaces matter. If these things don’t, matter, to paraphrase Truman Capote, they’re not writers, just typists.

There are four essential books every writer and editor needs on a desk, or at least within reach: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, and a usage guide. Anyone’s claim to be a writer or journalist without these is suspect. However, which ones they chose is also important to consider.

But before I look into these categories, let me explain about books vs. online sources, and why books are superior. And this advice applies not only to people who write for a living, but to bloggers, aspiring novelists, academics working on dissertaions – anyone who writes regularly or for pleasure.

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Of dictionaries, memories, and friends

Johnson's DictionaryWhen a copy of this selection from Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary arrived last week, I was delighted, and immediately reminded of my late, and well-loved friend, Bill. He would have appreciated the book, chuckled over Johnson’s witty definitions, delighted in the words at play. We would have sat around the kitchen counter, alternately reading random definitions from the book, in between sips of wine.

Like every good writer I’ve ever known, Bill loved words, puns, wit, and the interplay of language.

Sadly, Bill died of esophageal cancer late last year, the same cancer that took my father a few years earlier. A nasty, painful, flesh-wasting disease.  Because of that, Bill and I never got to sit down and share our thoughts about this book over a glass of wine, as we had done many times over many different books, before. I saw him a couple of weeks before his death, as he lay, bedridden, in palliative care. A thin shadow of the man who used to come up for long weekends to spend time with us.

Bill was a passionate reader and we shared many books and interests in common; especially those on Napoleonic and English history. He had a passion for British naval history, and Jane Austen’s life and times, and he was a fount of knowledge about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He could quote Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Austen. He introduced us to numerous BBC dramas, comedies, and specials, and he was generous in lending his DVDs of them. He had a musical streak and we played guitar and ukulele together. And, of course, he loved words.

I was reading through this book the other night, and wondered how Johnson himself felt about friendship and death. James Boswell was his biographer, friend and companion late in his life, but did they share the same sort of closeness as I had with Bill? Boswell went off on a trip to Scotland when Johnson was sick, and was away when the latter died, in 1784. How did Johnson feel about Boswell’s absence, or Boswell and being so far away when his friend died?

Boswell’s comment on hearing of the death was, “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up.” I felt similarly, when Barbara, Bill’s wife, called to tell me of passing, last year. And I felt relieved, not that he was gone, but that his suffering was finally over. I am not ashamed to admit I cried at the news.

I’d known Bill since the late 1970s-early ’80s, back when we both worked on InfoAge magazine, years even before I met Susan. Many the evening back then we stayed up late and talked, sometimes argued, and drank our wine while playing chess, go, or some wargame – at which he almost always won. He was the smartest, funniest man I ever met and my time with him – our time, really, since he was a friend to both of us – was precious.

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Decades, centuries and millennia

Blame it on DennisJanuary 1 is NOT the start of a new decade. To the CBC and the other arithmetically-challenged media who insist otherwise: it isn’t. You just don’t understand how to count to 10. No matter how you spin it, 9 years is not 10.

And even if it was, starting or ending a decade or any other period of time has no magical significance. Neither history nor culture, neither politics nor science work along calendrical timelines and our own calendar is an arbitrary construct for convenience only. But back to the numbers. It all comes down to simple numbers.

I get that counting from one to 10 is tricky for some folk (like CBC editors). It’s easy to get lost and forget that there are ten digits in there. “One, two, three, uh… seven… nine… four… is that it?” But here’s how it works:

1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7… 8… 9… 10

Feel free to print this sequence out for future reference. Try it using your fingers. See? Ten numbers when you count from one to ten. Pretty amazing, eh? Well, that’s how our calendar works, too.

So if the above arithmetic hasn’t boggled your mind too much already, let’s do some basic counting. We’ll start with a decade. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek through Latin: dekas is in ten in Greek, decas is Latin. A decade can mean a set of ten things, such as books, chapters, or even prayers, but for this article we’re interested in one use: counting years. A decade is ten years. Not nine, not eleven.

Sure, you can pick any arbitrary group of ten years and call them a decade, but that dilutes the significance considerably. 1964-1973 is a decade, technically, but unless it’s associated with a significant historical event or issue, so what? Who celebrated the start of a new decade in 1974?  Same with 2010-2019 – technically correct only as a decade in marketing or in slipshod media reckoning. (I’m sure you are aware that, in the example decade above, it marked the ten years of direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.)

The first decade in the western calendar starts with year 1, just like your fingers do,  and ends with… have you figured it out yet? That’s right! Year 10. Years 1 through 10 are the first decade. Now with a little effort, you can calculate the first century – 100 years. Spoiler alert: that’s years 1 through 100. And the first millennium? Right: years 1 through 1000. See the pattern? You start counting with 1, not 0. Decades, centuries and millennia all start with a year ending in 1. And they close with a year ending in zero. Just like counting from one to 10 on your fingers. You don’t count from 0 to 9, do you? Then why do it with years?

So what is 2020 in those terms? Start with 2001, the first year of this millennium and count 10… 2001 to 2010, then another 10; 2011 to 2020. So 2020 is the LAST year of the current decade, not the start of a new one. Got that? Apparently the CBC doesn’t, but like local media, their credibility is long past its best-before date. I digress.

Calendars are not like the odometer on your car. Odometers start at zero, so when you see 1, you’ve travelled 1 km (or miles if you prefer the archaic imperial system). When the numbers on an odometer roll over to 2,020 it means you’ve travelled a full 2,020 kilometers and number 2,021 is just starting. Calendars, on the other hand start at 1, and the appearance of year 2020 indicates we’ve done 2,019 years and the 2,020th is about to begin, not ending.

You can also count years like you count the pages in a book. You start with one. You don’t begin reading the second set of 10 until you read to the very end of page 10. Or like money – count from one. If I owed you $10 and gave you $9 because I started counting from zero – would you accept it? Think of years as pennies. How many pennies are in $20? Is $19.99 the same amount as $20? Would a bank give you a $20 bill if you gave it $19.99 in pennies? We count house numbers, cookies, bottles of beer – everything else from one. So why are some people trying to make us count years from a non-existent year zero? Zero isn’t a number – it’s a place marker. Doesn’t anyone take math in schools these days? Or maybe they think there’s a ‘decade’ with only nine years lurking in the calendar.

I blame Dennis.
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The dictionary of delight

Johnson, a la BlackadderMohocks, Samuel Johnson informed us in 1755, was the “name of a cruel nation of America given to ruffians who infested, or rather were imagined to infest, the streets of London.” Moky meant dark, as in weather. Gallimatia was nonsense; talk without meaning. Commination was a threat; a denunciation of punishment, or of vengeance. Tachygraphy was the art of quick writing. Eftsoons meant soon afterwards. Saltinbanco was a quack or a mountebank. A dotard was a man whose age impaired his intellects (no Donald Trump jokes, please).

A lexicographer is a “harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” So reads the self-deprecating entry in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.  It’s a wonderful book to read even today, and not only for those few of us who delight in reading dictionaries.

Reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary is, for anyone interested in words and history, a delightful, entertaining experience. Johnson’s wit and intelligence come through in every entry, more so when you consider it was a one-man project that took eight years to complete. A truly remarkable accomplishment. 

And it remained the basis of all subsequent dictionaries and remained in print right up until the absolute crown of dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary (compilation began in 1857, but  it didn’t start publishing until 1884, and the full dictionary itself did not see print until 1928!)

Johnson’s work is also a window into the literary and social world of the 18th century as seen through the language. Johnson was contemporary with Adam Smith,  Edward Gibbon,  Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Rousseau, Kant, Spinoza, Voltaire and many other great authors and thinkers. It was also the era of political upheaval: both the French and American revolutions erupted.

If you’ve seen the wonderfully funny Blackadder episode about Johnson’s dictionary (Ink and Incapability), you get a bit of the sense of how much fun a dictionary can be. Who can forget Blackadder’s contrafibularity? Anaspeptic? Interfrastically? Frasmotic? You probably even tried to look them up in a more modern dictionary (yes, of course I did…).

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Don Quixote times three

Don QuixotesAt roughly the same time Shakespeare was writing and performing King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello and Macbeth (1604-1605), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was publishing the first part (52 chapters) of his satiric novel, Don Quixote, or more properly titled (in English), The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. The second part (another 74 chapters) was published in 1615, roughly two years after Shakespeare’s final play, The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-written with John Fletcher).

While it was probably always intended as a single novel, the decade of time between the publication of the two parts has suggested to some scholars it is really two novels (although Part 2 starts only a month after the events that close Part 1). And perhaps it should be marketed as such; the fat combined volume could easily deter readers. I know, I know: there are people who are deterred from reading by any document regardless of its length, and not just local politicians.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare died in April, 1616, Cervantes a mere day before the Bard, a notable coincidence. Four hundred years later, their contributions to literature and culture still affect us. I heard a local resident comment on “tilting at windmills” only last week. And I still find references to Sancho Panzo in my online reading.

Don Quixote is considered the first “modern” novel. I suppose that means it was not a morality tale, a Christian allegory or written as an ethical training guide to nobility. But also it’s because of the narrative thread and the complexity of the characters.

It achieved international fame almost immediately – the first part was translated into English in 1612 and has been translated many times since. The most recent translation was 2012 (Gerald J Davis). In my own library, I have three translations: John Ormsby (1885, my edition was published 2015), J. M. Cohen (1951, in Penguin books 1985) and Edith Grossman (2003 – which achieved bestseller status that year, remarkable for a book 400 years old). A fourth, translated by Montgomery (2006) is on order.
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