Remembering The Man Who Wrote The First Dictionary Ever

Posted by ShaswatPanda11 in Society
September 20, 2017

When we clicked on the Google icon on September 18, a book opened, and we saw a grumpy-faced man wearing a wig, wistfully flipping through the pages of a book. The man in the picture is Samuel Johnson, popularly known as Dr Johnson.

For people who care, Johnson is the creator of the first proper dictionary of the English language. Some might also be aware that he is one of the pioneering biographers in the modern sense of the term. Critics tell us that, he did not individually contribute to a specific aspect of literature and yet the period in which he wrote came to be called the ‘Age of Johnson’. For centuries, lines from Johnson remain(ed) the most quotable and anecdotes from his life have created at least 12 biographies, from the 18th century to the 21st century.

In India, Johnson was never the most loved author. He is praised but not deified like Shakespeare. Quoted, but not sung like Wordsworth. The enthusiasm over Johnson, as with many writers from the British canon, has cooled down over the years. But Johnson is an excellent specimen of the rare breed of public intellectuals and for reasons that (300 odd years after the writer’s birth), a former colony might find exciting.

The greatest contribution of Johnson might perhaps be acknowledged for the efforts he made to improve the ‘English tongue’. It was not just the dictionary but numerous other treatises in which Johnson laboured hard to rescue the language from obfuscation and pedantry and simplify it for the benefit of the reading public.

Be it politics, philosophy or history, Johnson’s opinions have become immortal primarily because of their clarity. One of the barriers that exist between the intellectuals and the masses is the opaqueness of language, and that is partly the reason why what is written hardly reaches out to those whose concerns are raised.

In India, there seems to be a widening of the gap between the academic and the public intellectual, largely due to the rigidity of language. We can think only of a few scholars who write to address the reading public and not just their students, colleagues or an imagined academic from the West.

For someone like Johnson, the cure for ignorance among the public did not equate with contempt for the masses but prompt action which ensured ‘general welfare’.

Of all the things, what might arouse our curiosity are Johnson’s political/polemical writings. Johnson’s “Patriotism Is The Last Refuge Of The Scoundrel” is a favourite among many thinkers, even in India. But, this was not the only instance where the English icon said something extremely controversial or unpopular.

Many did not see eye to eye with Johnson for his unconventional views on matters such as nationalism, colonisation and media. A pamphlet titled “The Patriot” was a trenchant critique of the government which had in the past criticised its adversaries for the lack of patriotism but was now failing on similar grounds.

In 1770 he had written another essay titled “The False Alarm” which was, in fact, a defence of an anti-war pamphlet drafted by a John Wilkes, whose nationalistic credentials had been questioned in the parliament. Despite being a Tory, Johnson was not the strongest advocate of colonialism or slavery; he, in fact, had the harshest of words for such practices.

In “Taxation No Tyranny”, he did not sympathise with the colonists who had voluntarily moved to America and pleaded for exemption from taxes they considered exploitative. Blasting such hypocrisy, he sharply reasoned that they should pay their taxes. Without mincing his words, Johnson said, “We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Despite his love for London or England at large, Johnson did not seem to romanticise its past or encourage its imperialist missions. In a biting satire called ‘Marmor Norfolciense’, Johnson remembers England’s violent past and predicts that future could be no better. In an age when media centres are treated like verbal war-zones, it might be relevant to recall Johnson’s admonishment of sensationalisation and media-trial (to use a contemporary idiom.)

In an incident involving a navy personnel Admiral Byng, who had been shot for his act of ‘cowardice’, Johnson heavily criticised the parliament, the press and the general public for their hostility towards Byng. When King George III met Johnson in 1767, in his library, he wished a biography of the country to be written; but Johnson never wrote one.

Years later, Johnson produced “Lives of the Poets” which clubbed together writers with diverse loyalties and allegiances but all committed to one cause – improving the English language. If not anything else, Johnson has one important message for us – that one’s love for one’s country can find expression in many ways; least of all through mere chest-thumping, and most of all by highlighting its blemishes and remedying them.

“Critical insiders” to use U.R. Ananthamurthy’s words, do not speak from a position of hate; they speak from a position of concern or if one might add – love.

Shaswat Panda teaches English at North Orissa University.