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Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary

3.75  ·  Rating Details  ·  171 Ratings  ·  34 Reviews
A Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the Year

In 1746, Samuel Johnson undertook the Herculean task of writing the first comprehensive English dictionary. Imagining he could complete the job in three years, Johnson in fact took more than eight, and the dictionary itself turned out to be as much a work of literature as it was an invaluable reference. In alphabetized chapters,
Paperback, 304 pages
Published October 17th 2006 by Picador (first published April 11th 2005)
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Mar 08, 2012 Phillip rated it really liked it
Hitchings' book is as much a promotion of Johnson's dictionary, as a piece of literature to read, as it is a biography of Dr. Johnson. It does both well.

Of particular interest to me. I had forgotten about the significance and culture of the coffee house during Johnson's time. The reminder of this bit of history makes the running gag in Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" about coffee houses being everywhere that the English were that much funnier. In his great buddy novel Pynchon shows Mason and Dixo
We know that it's possible to write entertainingly about the process of writing a dictionary -- Simon Winchester has done it twice. Henry Hitchings doesn't have the knack. The word that comes to mind that best describes this book is "plodding".

The copy I bought was remaindered at $3.88. I can't say I was surprised.
A dull, pedestrian, aimless book. Though I dare say the scholarship was accurate.

Hitchings has recently come out with another book: "The Secret Life of Words". According to The New
Jan 16, 2016 Trenchologist rated it liked it
Really liked the mix of Johnson the man versus Johnson the scholar, what words meant then, what words have fallen into complete obscurity, what common words were somehow decided not to be included in the Dictionary. I didn't like as much the almost pedantic rhythm of the whole, the listing-fashion most of the words covered were recounted in; it's difficult to succinctly describe why, but somehow the book lacked. It wasn't snappy or compelling, for all I enjoyed the theme, the sometime humor and ...more
E. C. Koch
Mar 10, 2015 E. C. Koch rated it really liked it
This is the latest of a string of history-of-the-English-language books I've read recently and Hitchings does a good job here. This book was built out of Hitchings' dissertation, and he skillfully walks the reader through some pertinent issues surrounding the language ante-1755, and offers a description of how Johnson went about his work, while also giving just enough biographical information. Hitchings also catches the reader up on certain 18th-c. social issues, which he addresses by way of som ...more
Li'l Vishnu
Jan 22, 2014 Li'l Vishnu rated it liked it

If a similar vagueness clouds Johnson’s definition of ‘adder’ (‘a serpent, a viper, a poisonous reptile; perhaps of any species’), his definition of ‘tarantula’ is positively opaque. Johnson tell us that it is ‘an insect whose bite is only cured by music’. This curious belief is recorded by Samuel Pepys among others, and had recently been confirmed by a Neapolitan violinist, who had described in the Gentleman’s Magazine his success in curing a man who had been bitten under the lip of his ear. J

Mark O'Neill
We all know the Dr Johnson portrayed in the classic Blackadder episode and we all use his book, the Dictionary, every day. This book explores the life and background of Johnson, as well as his struggle to write the world's first English dictionary. A great subject for a book but in places, quite boring and unreadable.[return][return]For readers who are linguists or lexicographers, you would probably give this book 5 stars, because a lot of the book examines the definitions that Johnson gave to w ...more
Feb 15, 2009 Adam rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anglophiles and logophiles
This book is likely to be a varied experience depending on whether you have already read -- or at least perused -- Samuel Johnson's dictionary. If you have, I imagine this book will feel like a guided tour through a hall you have already wandered through. If you haven't, it will be more like someone pointing through a large window to various interesting objects in a room you cannot enter.

I fall into the latter category, and the chief effect of this book was to make me want to pick up the dictio
With the exception of a few delicious quotes of his, I knew very little about Dr. Johnson and his making of the dictionary before I read Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. I learned quite a few tidbits and got a bit of a feel for the man himself. He was a larger-than-life type personality and it seems that his dictionary reflects that.

Since I have a fascination with dictionaries and lexicography I found it to be an interesting book but not altogether captiva
Mar 27, 2011 Mike rated it really liked it
Very interesting, and humorous.

19-coz...instead of furnishing convivial merriment to the voluptuous & disssolute, his abilities might have enabled him to excel among the virtuous & wise
23-at Oxford...I bid farewell to Sloth, being resolved henceforth not to listen to her siren strains
25....the pinched & narrow world of Breadmarket Street
48...he was impertinent and I beat him
64...genial banter with his helpers....who did much to allay his melancholy
94...Black Adder episode..Ink &
Bookmarks Magazine

What Simon Winchester did for the Oxford English Dictionary in The Meaning of Everything (**** Nov/Dec 2003), Hitchings does for its predecessor, Samuel Johnson's dictionary. Hitchings's delightful book is infused with details about the history of lexicography and the English language, and he places the dictionary in the context of Johnson's difficult life and the fame that followed. Cleverly written (though Hitchings misses a few definitions here and there), Defining the World is organized much

Amanda Witt
Good descriptions of the words and Johnson's meanings, though he dismissed words he did not readily understand or think were important to include. 3rd/4th editions cost four pounds and ten shillings, equal to a dental treatment for a year or a new suit.

Johnson's quirky explanations are defined as: oats - a grain in England that feeds horses, but in Scotland is expected to support the people'. Even if English horses/Scots stopped eating them, oats would still be oats.
Sep 13, 2015 Michael rated it really liked it
Stupendous. When the movie version appears I really hope they decide to film Johnson's selection of his amanuenses in the amped-up style of a mastermind choosing his thieves for a big heist. Starring Timothy Spall as Johnson, probably. I'm thinking Mark Strong as Lord Chesterfield and Brendan Gleason as Boswell? Directed by Guy Ritchie, of course.
Dan Bentley
Mar 13, 2007 Dan Bentley rated it liked it
Recommends it for: philologists
Interesting, but in a style obviously written by an academic. You are always studying Johnson, not living with him. He is a character through a lens; a lens which always stays in the picture.

Some cool facts, and stories, though.

The concept of the book is that each chapter is a word in the dictionary, and it progresses through the alphabetical order. He does it pretty well, though once or twice I thought the chapter was an essay that could have survived anywhere in the book.

Essentially a chronolo
Jun 18, 2008 Erik rated it liked it
I may be partial to the Oxford English Dictionary, but I couldn’t help but pick up this slender volume on Johnson’s definitive dictionary that was made and made famous a hundred years before James Murray organized and edited the OED. Author Hitchings nicely charts the lifework of Samuel Johnson by organizing his book into alphabetical chapters. Although his narrative style is nowhere near as captivating as Simon Winchester in the latter’s “The Professor and the Madman” and “The Meaning of Everyt ...more
Jeff Crompton
Nov 12, 2011 Jeff Crompton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is essential reading for anyone interested in Samuel Johnson and his dictionary, which, warts and all, was the standard English dictionary for 100 years or so. Hitchings does a good job of pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Johnson's extraordinary work. His view can be summed up with one sentence from the first chapter of this book: "Unlike other dictionaries, Johnson's is a work of literature."

About halfway through reading this book, I found and downloaded an e-book version of t
Jul 22, 2013 Wade rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Interesting history of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language (published in 1755). "More than any other English dictionary, it abounds with stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths. It is, in short, a treasure house." p 196. I guess not surprisingly in telling its history, the author used lots of really big words. To understand a book about the dictionary, I actually needed a dictionary...

Here are some of my new favorite words: adscititious
Stephanie Hooks
Jul 02, 2016 Stephanie Hooks rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very informative. I enjoyed learning about the story behind the dictionary and how it came into being.
Daniel Kukwa
Feb 20, 2012 Daniel Kukwa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A compact, delightful biography of both Dr. Johnson and his groundbreaking dictionary. This book indulges in the era's love of literacy, word play, and enlightening exposition. In examining one of history's most famous volumes, Henry Hitchings' work is a savage poke in the eye to anyone who thinks physical books aren't sensual, artisan works...and that the future is solely banal e-books. Dr. Johnson would have a few splendid words to share on the matter...and after reading "Dr. Johnson's Diction ...more
Apr 15, 2014 Ken rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Inventive in structure, erudite in vocabulary, this story is wonderfully told. As idiosyncratic as its subject.
Jan 02, 2014 J.E.Lindberg rated it it was amazing
The tale of a truly herculean task. Fascinating. Imagine compiling the first comprehensive dictionary of the english language by hand. Samuel Johnson did just that and much more. This is a very readable work on what might otherwise be a not-so-exciting topic at first glance.
Hitchens discusses the life of Johnson in general, but the focus of this book does stay on the dictionary. I found that reading in small increments with the notes bookmarked for reference was the best way for me to tackle this interesting read. At times, the author really got into discussing dictionary definitions to the point of listing them throughout a few pages. Best read in several short sittings I think.
Khairul H.
Feb 16, 2009 Khairul H. rated it it was ok
It started well. The first few chapters were interesting but once the author started telling how Johnson got around to compiling words for the dictionary, it became meandering and boring real fast. Imagine my surprise. I would have thought that would be the most interesting part but alas, my attention was lost and I gave up on the book. Pity. It could have been so much better.
Nov 07, 2012 Jen rated it liked it
Shelves: not-at-library
I found the concept of this book -- the story of how Johnson wrote the first English dictionary -- fascinating. What I didn't find fascinating was Hitchings' writing style or his analysis. Just because Johnson quoted something in his dictionary doesn't mean he endorsed the concept or held the opinion, and Hitchings resorts to that false logic too many times.
Jan 08, 2008 april rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really liked how the chapters all began with a definition from the dictionary (since Hastings used dictionary words for the chapter titles), and they were used alphabetically. I didn't know much about Johnson before this, and through this book I learned a lot about both him and his writing process.
May 19, 2012 Jodi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
22 May 2010 -- the vocabulary used in this book was naturally amazing and it was a great adventure to read. Kept my Oxford dictionary by my side throughout. Impressed by Dr. Johnson's dictionary and have a new respect for the art of dictionary compilation.
Nov 25, 2007 J.R. rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Hitchings gives an entertaining and impressive glimpse into Samuel Johnson’s world, his enterprise and its impact on history. The chapters are arranged alphabetically like words in a dictionary and are replete with humor, insight and intelligence.
Oct 16, 2008 Jenn rated it really liked it
This took me a while, just because I wanted to digest it all. Definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in words and history. Makes an interesting companion to THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Apr 01, 2010 Converse rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Enjoyable tale of Samuel Johnson writing the first decent English dictionary in the 1740-50s, the dictionary itself, and various Johnson crochets; Also how later writers decried Johnson's work while stealing from it
Jan 27, 2011 Pat rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
Samuel Johnson's development of a revolutionary dictionary. The author used the Johnson's words selected for the dictionary as a guide to his life and personality. A terrific book, if not a little slow.
Oct 14, 2007 Rebekah rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, word-nerd
What I learned: It is a very complicated thing to write a dictionary. I also learned the average English speaker has a vocabulary of around 50,000 words. I wonder how many are in mine?
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Henry Hitchings is the author of The Language Wars, The Secret Life of Words, Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen?, and Defining the World. He has contributed to many newspapers and magazines and is the theater critic for the London Evening Standard.
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