Defining the World The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary

Henry Hitchings




Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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By the early eighteenth century, France and Italy had impressive lexicons, but there was no authoritative dictionary of English. Sensing the deficit, and impelled by a mixture of national pride and commercial expedience, the prodigious polymath Samuel Johnson embraced the task, turning over the garret of his London home to the creation of his own giant dictionary.

Johnson imagined that he could complete the job in three years. But the complexity of English meant that his estimate was wildly inadequate. Only after he had expended nearly a decade of his prime on the task did the dictionary finally appear—magisterial yet quirky, dogmatic but generous of spirit, and steeped in the richness of English literature. It would come to be seen as the most important British cultural monument of the eighteenth century, and its influence fanned out across Europe and throughout Britain's colonies—including, crucially, America.

Defining the World is the story of Johnson's heroic endeavor, 250 years after the first publication of the Dictionary. In alphabetically sequenced chapters, Henry Hitchings describes Johnson's adventure—his ambition and vision, his moments of despair, the mistakes he made along the way, and his ultimate triumph.


Praise for Defining the World

"When Samuel Johnson began to compile his dictionary of the English language, he was a little-known hack on London's Grub Street. The resulting four-volume, 20-pound set, this masterful history argues, was the triumph of a singular genius."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"[A] concise and informative history of Johnson's dictionary and how it came to be written. . . . [Henry Hitchings] is an inventive and entertaining guide."—The New York Times

"Hitchings is a good writer himself, and his effort to make us see the exact proportions of Johnson's achievement—taking care over the little things, and showing an ability to understand the pages of the Dictionary as offering a lively place of autobiography—begin to place him in the company of . . . a handful of writers who are writers enough to bring freshness to literary history."—Andrew O'Hagan, The New York Review of Books

"Hitchings is a buoyant, zestful writer . . . Also delightful is how Hitchings evokes the presence and temperament, by turns neurotic and assured, crotchety and inquisitive, of the 'book-munch, the pagemaker, and the cultural steeplejack' who pulled off a remarkable intellectual feat."—The Boston Globe

"Like a good dictionary, Hitchings's work itself is chockablock with enough tidbit and trivia to delight even the looniest of logophiles."—The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Henry Hitchings's book is lively, erudite and enriched with colorful anecdotes—a masterful account of one of the greatest literary triumphs of the eighteenth century."—Giles Milton, author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg

"Henry Hitching's book on Samuel Johnson's mighty Dictionary is so good, so apposite, so chewy and edible, that I felt as if I were rereading it on my first pass . . . Hitchings skillfully melds the practice of compiling the dictionary with the biography of its author."—Will Self, New Statesman

"Ingenious and fascinating . . . Among its other excellences, Hitchings never loses sight of [Johnson's morality]."—John Carey, The Sunday Times (London)

"Immensely likeable, written with serious intent and gentle good humour."—Sarah Burton, The Spectator

"A rich, lively and attractive book . . . [Hitchings] has a fine ear for the nuances of Johnsonian prose."—Thomas Keymer, The Times Literary Supplement

"A lively and appetite-whetting biography of the great book itself . . . Hitchings tackles the subject with a refreshing lack of pomposity and a delightfully light touch."—Rosemary Goring, The Herald (Glasgow)

"A spirited, learned account of how Samuel Johnson (1709-84), son of a bookseller and sheriff, created the first great English dictionary. Hitchings organizes his debut work in a somewhat playful but effective fashion. At the head of each chapter is a word of consequence for that section (e.g., 'Bookworm,' 'Melancholy'), accompanied by Johnson's original definition. And each chapter is brief—like a dictionary entry—focused on a specific topic. The author has actually crafted a dual biography (of a man, of lexicography) as well as a swift social history of mid- to late-18th-century England. We learn about Johnson's tormenting physical difficulties—blind in one eye, partially deaf, scarred by scrofula. Not an appealing childhood playmate, young Johnson read with something near savagery and then, after acquiring some money to attend Oxford, had to withdraw after only about a year because of his father's poor health. (Degrees were awarded him later.) Johnson eventually married an older woman (by more than 20 years), failed as a schoolteacher and—like Shakespeare, one of his heroes—set off for London to make his fortune. He worked for publishers and booksellers and was invited in 1746 by publisher Robert Dodsley to compile a new English dictionary. And in 1755, the first massive edition appeared, weighing in at more than 20 pounds. Hitchings does a masterful job of describing Johnson's approach (which he modified as he became aware of the Herculean dimensions of his task) and of doing his best to credit his assistants, whose biographies are largely lost to history. The author also entertains in two significant ways. First, he has scoured the Johnson dictionary for enjoyable and arresting examples (Johnson included fart, but not buggery). Second, he writes many sentences the Doctor himself would have admired. 'The definitions and illustrations,' notes Hitchings, 'are luxuriant with these sudden blooms.' Hitchings ends with a solid assessment of Johnson's enduring legacy. A first-rate synthesis of one of literary history's most astonishing endeavors."—Kirkus Reviews

"In his first book, Hitchings traces Samuel Johnson's (1709-84) life before, during, and after the production of his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, also documenting the praise and criticism of his work, the expenses of the endeavor, the assistance he received, his methods, and his health in particular. Though given to bouts of depression, Johnson continued writing essays, diatribes, plays, and novels to earn his living while reading prodigiously to scour for quotations that would illustrate his definitions. The most entertaining of these 35 alphabetically sequenced chapters (e.g., 'Pastern: The knee of a horse') deal with the entries themselves: some were wryly humorous, some self-serving, some overly detailed, some vague, and some just plain wrong. Yet, overall, the dictionary is an extraordinary work from a polymath of the first order, and Hitchings does it great service by delivering a readable, thoroughly researched, and carefully documented study. Highly recommended."—Kitty Chen Dean, Library Journal

"For the 250th anniversary of Dr. Samuel Johnson's most famous achievement, Hitchings's charming philology-as-biography shows Johnson to be no mere compiler of words but, as he himself put it, 'a writer of dictionaries.' Authoritative dictionaries for French and Italian were compiled by official academies, but English's first proper dictionary fell to a university dropout and failed provincial schoolmaster turned Grub Street hack—long before he became the Great Cham. The work began as a purely commercial venture at the suggestion of a bookseller-publisher. Johnson labored under less than ideal conditions, assisted only by a group of eclectic and eccentric amanuenses, and burdened by his wife's declining health and his own melancholia. In the end, his four-volume, 20-pound opus defined more than 42,773 common words and technical terms from all disciplines, supported with some 110,000 quotations drawn from English literature. Besides contemporary illustrations by the great Hogarth and Reynolds, Hitchings's book reproduces sample pages of Johnson's annotated reference material and the first edition of the dictionary. Though not as sensational as the bestselling account of another dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, British writer Hitchings's debut puts the scholarly labor in illuminating perspective along with its entirely human creator."—Publishers Weekly

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Defining the World


1. He that is inclined to adventures; and, consequently, bold, daring, courageous
2. Applied to things; that which is full of hazard; which requires courage; dangerous


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  • Henry Hitchings

  • Henry Hitchings received his Ph.D. from University College, London. He has written for numerous newspapers and periodicals, including The Times Literary Supplement, the Observer, the New Statesman and the Financial Times. He was awarded the Modern Language Association Prize for Independent Scholars for Defining the World, his first book, and currently lives in London.

  • Henry Hitchings © Jerry Bauer / Agence Opale
    Henry Hitchings