Friday, February 02, 2007

Johnson's Dictionary

Samuel Johnson was a pretty busy guy. Aside from being an essayist, critic, scholar and all around smarty pants, Johnson created the first full dictionary of the English language. It was quite a project, made up of some 42,000 words with definitions and sample sentences to show usage. Although he had 6 clerical assistants working under him, it was primarily Johnson's own hard work that pulled it all together. It set the standard for what became the Oxford English Dictionary and influenced how Noah Webster would create his own dictionary for us over here in the states.

One of my favorite definitions used in Johnson's dictionary is this:

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

I like it not because it's accurate, well written or funny (it's all of these), but so blatantly biased. Equating Scotsmen to horses sets them up to be little better than animals. At the time Johnson was living the Scots----my proud ancestors----were not exactly endearing themselves to the English. A few decades prior to our own revolution here in the colonies the Scots were inciting revolt of their own, something remembered today as the Jacobite Uprisings. They were a bit miffed when James the IV of Scotland and England was removed from the throne and replaced by his daughter Mary II and her husband, the Dutch-born William of Orange. It was a time marked by protests, violent uprisings and hurt feelings on both sides----some people still have hurt feelings over the whole fiasco.

For a long time Englishman told Scottish jokes the way Polish jokes are told here in the U.S., so it's easy to excuse Johnson for his silly slip into provencial crassness. It's a funny example of how language can be shaped and twisted to change the way we think. It's a small word, oats. But in defining it the way he did Johnson left a marker for how he and his fellow Englishman felt about the people just to the North.

Nowadays the various dictionaries strive to be as clinical, scientific and unbiased as possible in their defintions. But I do wonder what words will stand out in 100 years as cultural markers for how we think and feel about each other today.


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