Mohocks, 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…).
Okay, yes I do like to pick up one of the dozens of dictionaries I own and rifle through the pages, not so much seeking specific words as simply exploring what is offered. Randomly selecting a page or entry, sometimes reading a page or two, often hopping back and forth. I appreciate that few of my readers here are likely to share my interest in whiling away a few hours reading through a dictionary, but in this instance, I assure you it’s time well spent. For example:
Tumulose means full of hills. Twittletwattle is a “ludicrous reduplication of twattle.” A mittimus is a warrant by which a justice commits an offender to prison. To increpate is to chide. Infausting is the act of making unlucky, while infuscation is the act of darkening. Nugacity means futility or trifling talk. A nizy is a dunce. A network is “any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” A querpo is a waistcoat. A rebeck is a three-stringed fiddle.
Of course I own copies of the standard, credible and reliable dictionaries (Oxford, Merriam-Webster, Chambers, Random House – but NOT the generic box-store “Webster’s”). I also have many speciality dictionaries – nautical terms, legal terms, business, philosophy, literary, slang, -isms and -ologies, venereal terms and more line my shelves. None of them give me as much delight as Johnson’s (although the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue comes close at times).
But let me be clear: I do NOT have a copy of Johnson’s full, two-volume dictionary, with more than 42,000 entries, quoting from about 114,000 sources. I have a 650-page selection edited by Jack Lynch (Levenger Press, 2004) of roughly 18,000 entries. And it’s a superb publication to introduce Johnson to the public again, with an excellent introduction, history and end notes. I recommend it highly.
But trust me, gentle reader, I will have the full work on my shelves soon.
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Semantic Antics by Sol Steinmetz is another delightful dictionary. It tracks how many popular words changed their meaning over the ages. In it you learn that vulgar meant common or ordinary from the 14th century to the mid-17th, when it started to take on the meaning of coarse and unrefined. Steinmetz doesn’t identify when it took on the meaning of off-colour, risqué or even obscene, although it can mean those today.