Bad Writing in Belated Support of a Good Dictionary

Samuel Johnson is a relatively obscure figure for most people, but there are a few facts about him that – if they know anything about him at all – people are likely to know. One is that he’s somehow associated with James Boswell, and that’s certainly true. A lot of readers know Johnson only through Boswell’s chatty and readable biography that he published about him seven years after his death. It’s a little long, but there are many edited versions available and still being published, all these years later.

Another is that Sam was a writer, and a writer of essays, and that those essays were often of the “how to live life” type. Here, people are generally referring to a series of twice-weekly essays called The Rambler that Johnson published for two years when he was in his early 40s. Boswell, who lacked a supportive father and often needed encouragement and moral guidance in his life, treated these essays sometimes like a manual (other people did as well).

But perhaps the work that Sam is most famous for is the dictionary of the English language that he compiled over a period of nine years when he was in his late 30s to mid-40s. It was published in 1755 and immediately became the authoritative source for definitions of English words. Sam’s dictionary was reprinted during his lifetime and editions were published well into the 19th century after his death.

There are many great anecdotes about the dictionary, but the one I want to mention involves the support – or lack of it – that Sam received from his “patron” during the course of the writing of the dictionary. Patrons were a common means of promotion for any book to be published in the 18th century. Usually a person of high social status would act as patron, and the idea was not only promotion and conferring legitimacy on the book project in order to encourage people to buy it when it would be published, but also financial help as well. The benefit to the patron was being associated with the “world of letters.”

Sam’s patron for his dictionary was Lord Chesterfield (Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield), and during the eight years of patronage, while Sam worked on this massive project and also supported himself financially by writing essays (The Rambler from 1750 to 1752 and The Adventurer for two years after that), and also endured the death of his wife – Chesterfield basically did nothing. It was only in late 1754, when the work on the dictionary was finished and it was on the point of being published, that suddenly Chesterfield sprang to life with two cringe-worthy letters in a periodical called The World. Not only is the “help” late in coming for Sam, but Chesterfield’s writing is atrocious – pompous and sycophantic. Here’s a sample:

I hereby declare that I make a total surrender of all my rights and privileges in the English language, as a free-born British subject, to the said Mr. Johnson, during the term of his dictatorship. Nay more; I will not only obey him, like an old Roman, as my dictator, but, like a modern Roman, I will implicitly believe in him as my pope, and hold him to be infallible while in the chair; but no longer.

(The World, No. 100 (Nov. 28, 1754), pp. 601-602)

Sam wasn’t impressed and certainly not deferential. His letter in reply to Chesterfield’s has become a classic in speaking up to power and authority, and as an example of Sam not being thankful when he felt that it wasn’t deserved. Here’s part of his reply:

I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of the World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the publick, were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished, is an honour, which, being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address … When I had once addressed your Lordship in publick, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, my Lord, have now past, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before …
Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it …

February 7, 1755

In the end, Sam defined patron in his dictionary like this:

2 replies
  1. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    I agree. It’s not professional or scolarly. Johnson has some personal definitions like this in the dictionary, which have become very famous in Johnson lore. My favourites are the ones where the definition is, in effect, “I don’t know the meaning of this word.”

  2. Oscar Martens
    Oscar Martens says:

    What do you think about using a reference tool as a tool for revenge? It’s hilarious, but maybe not very professional?

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