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"Dr Johnson Speaks"

Jack Lynch writes in the Weekly Standard about Dr Johnson's dictionary. Samuel Johnson lived in desperate poverty for the first half of his life, was sickly and racked with tics, but managed to write a play, a travel book, more than 50 biographies, several hundred essays, “five fat volumes” of letters, and more than 40,000 definitions in his great Dictionary, which he published after prodigious labors in 1755. Boswell shadowed Dr. Johnson, and famously recorded his conversations. His sound bites are better known today than Johnson's writing, an irony Johnson would probably have relished.

Johnson famously said:

"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

On second marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience."

On Americans: "No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous."

A man with an appetite for controversy, Johnson is hard to pin down, though hundreds of authors have tried. A realist about people, tender about his cat, he enjoyed nuance, subtlety, precise definition, and reading hundreds of English writers. This stood him in good stead when he tackled his dictionary and attempted to define common, frequently used words which have dozens of slightly different meanings. Lynch points out that his entry for take runs to more than 133 numbered uses.

Johnson’s talent for pithy wit added brilliance to his dictionary, which became a bestseller the instant it was published. Used for the next 150 years, it was the first English dictionary to employ quotations to illustrate usage, a practice continued by the OED.

Johnson detested slavery. He left the bulk of his estate to a man who had been, before he reached England and worked for him, a slave.


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