A birthday card for Samuel Johnson

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Thu Sep 17 23:34:52 UTC 2009

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On Samuel Johnson's 300th  -- happy birthday, and happy birthnight

Sept. 18 is Samuel Johnson's 300th birthday. The English essayist,
poet, novelist, and witty conversationalist whom we know mostly
through the anecdotes recorded by his friend and biographer, James
Boswell, and his other friends, became famous in his day for his two-
volume  Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. . . .

Johnson defined lexicographer as "a harmless drudge" (s.v.) and
dictionary-making as "dull work" (s.v. dull, sense 8), but he surely
enjoyed cranking out definitions for odd words like dandiprat, "an
urchin," fopdoodle, "a fool," giglet, "a wanton," and jobbernowl, "a
block head."

Besides the occasional definitional joke, like Johnson's often-
repeated definition of oats, we also find in his dictionary words
whose meaning has changed: fireman, "a man of violent passions,"
pedant, "a schoolmaster," jogger, which Johnson characterizes as
movement that is far from aerobic, and orgasm, whose reference seems
to have been much broader during the Enlightenment than it is today,
and he liberally illustrates his definitions with citations from well-
known literary and scientific sources.

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Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


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