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This article is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Pictures from a Library
Pictures from the Rylands Library
Samuel Johnson, Francis Barber and the Power of Condolence
Stella Halkyard
Image of dictionary definition of 'condoler'

For Christopher Smart, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was, ‘a work I look upon with equal pleasure and amazement as I do St Paul’s Cathedral’.  Comprising 42,773 entries for 140,871 definitions, and compiled with the help of only a handful of assistants, many commentators saw it as a ‘great solid square-built edifice, finished, symmetrically complete’ (Thomas Carlyle) that established standards for the meanings of words in pure form independent of their usage. However, Johnson came to see attempts to ‘enchain syllables’ as a task as foolhardy as seeking to ‘lash the wind’ for, as the poets show, words are alive and their meanings shift, even when they are found within a dictionary, where ‘books speak the language of books’ (Allen Reddick). During the course of his life Johnson sought to ensure that lexicography became a dynamic practice opposed to creating monuments set in stone. Repeatedly revising his definitions from the start of his project in 1746 to his death in 1784 (Anne McDermott), surviving compositional materials show Johnson’s ‘virtually obsessive’ (Reddick) engagement with words, their histories, the permutations of their signification and metamorphosis over time.

A typical example of Johnson’s working method can be seen in the term ‘condoler’, shown here. Found in the fourth edition of the Dictionary (published in 1773) this unique copy, once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds, is now held in the Rylands. The many corrections recorded in this book were made at the end of Johnson’s life and incorporated ...

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