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This report is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.

Catchwords (3) Iain Bamforth

James Boswell liked to claim the greater part of the credit for making Samuel Johnson a household name in the British Isles: in the Advertisement to the second edition of his Life of Johnson, he announces: ‘I have Johnsonised the land; and I trust they will not only talk, but think, Johnson.’ In fact, it was The Dictionary of the English Language (1755), as Henry Hitchings shows in his cleverly constructed story of ‘the book that defined the world’. which made Johnson famous - one of the truly Herculean works of individual scholarship, and one that was complete years before he was lionised in Boswell’s biography.

It must, surely, have been Johnson’s great work Auden was thinking of, when he wrote, in his essay ‘Making, Knowing and Judging’, that ‘the most poetical of all scholastic disciplines is, surely, Philology, the study of language in abstraction from its uses, so that words become, as it were, little lyrics about themselves’. The Dictionary is coextensive with Johnson’s life as an author itself: he didn’t write it with the authority of age and experience to help it make its mark on the world. When the bookseller Robert Dodsley asked him to take on the task in 1746, Johnson was (like any author) attracted by the decent fee, and also because he understood, at least implicitly, that the commission was being called forth by the age, which was characterised by ‘a rage for order, manifest in a range of new phenomena: ...

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