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Dr Johnson on language and politicians

Dr Johnson would not be surprised that Helen Szamuely is concerned that English is spoken in Britain (see post below). Pronounciation and spelling in Britain varied wildly in his day, but Johnson was determined to instill definition into creative turmoil.

As we wrote last year in a post you may have missed, Samuel Johnson lived in desperate poverty for the first half of his life. He was sickly, partly blind and racked with tics, but he managed to write a play, a travel book, more than 50 biographies, several hundred essays, and “five fat volumes” of letters, before throwing out quips to Boswell.

A realist about people, tender about Hodge, his cat, Johnson enjoyed 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, and to provide quotations to illustrate usage, a practice continued by the OED.

With keen intelligence and prodigious labor he published his great English Dictionary in 1755 with more than 40,000 definitions. His entry for the word take runs to more than 133 numbered uses. His second use for the word politician is always timely - “A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.”

Johnson’s talent for pithy wit added brilliance to his dictionary, which became a bestseller the instant it was published, and was used for the next 150 years.

Kind to the poor, Johnson detested slavery. After outliving his wife, he left the bulk of his estate to a man who had been a slave before he reached Britain and became free.

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