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Defining the World

The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary

Henry Hitchings

Picador

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.

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Defining the World
ADVENTUROUS 
 
1. He that is inclined to adventures; and, consequently, bold, daring, courageous2. Applied to things; that which is full of hazard; which requires courage; dangerous 
ON 15 APRIL 1755 the first great dictionary of English was published. Samuel Johnson's giant Dictionary of the English Language was an audacious attempt to tame his unruly native tongue. In more than 42,000 carefully constructed entries, Johnson had mapped the contours of the language, combining huge erudition with a steely wit and remarkable clarity of thought.In doing
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REVIEWS

Praise for Defining the World

"Inventive and entertaining."--The New York Times Book Review
 
"Hitchings's evident enthrallment with all things Johnsonian is contagious."--The Roanoke Times
 
"[A] marvelous account of the making of the dictionary. . . . Defining the World is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year. 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-muncher, 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 tidbits and trivia to delight even the looniest of logophiles."--The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
 
"Quite simply, one can never get too much Samuel Johnson."--The Washington Post
 
"A well-written, intelligently organized, and thoroughly readable book . . . It is obvious that Hitchings loves to read Johnson's dictionary. . . . The great thing about Defining the World is that it makes us want to read it too."--Los Angeles Times
 
"Hitchings manages to make the story of a dictionary not only interesting but positively compelling."--The Examiner (Washington, D.C.)
 
"Hitchings's affectionate tribute accomplishes a worthy task of allowing us to admire anew Johnson's life and great work."--The Commercial Dispatch (Mississippi)
 
"A spirited, learned account . . . Hitchings does a masterful job of describing Johnson's approach. . . . A first-rate synthesis of one of literary history's most astonishing endeavors."--Kirkus Reviews
 
"This book is the riveting account of how Dr Johnson, an eighteenth-century man, blind in one eye, terrified of death and convinced he was lazy, compiled what is considered to be the definitive dictionary of the English language. Hitchings brings Johnson's humanity and the massive task he undertook to touchable life."--Beryl Bainbridge, The Guardian
 
"Hitchings's sprightly book about the dictionary gives a full picture of Johnson during a difficult decade of melancholy toil."--The New Yorker
 
"Hitchings skillfully re-creates Johnson's beloved London, a gin-soaked city of commercial ambition, petty jealousies and danger lurking down dark alleyways."--San Francisco Chronicle

Reviews from Goodreads

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Henry Hitchings

  • Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. Educated at the universities of Oxford and London, he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Samuel Johnson. Defining the World is his first book. He lives in London and contributes to a wide range of newspapers and periodicals.
  • Henry Hitchings © Jerry Bauer / Agence Opale
    Henry Hitchings
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Available Formats and Book Details

Defining the World

The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary

Henry Hitchings

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FROM THE PUBLISHER

Picador

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