Reading Johnson's Unreadable Dictionary

By Jack Lynch

Delivered 15 January 2004 at the Boston Athenæum

Well — I suppose when authors are invited to talk about their books, they usually give readings from them. Since I have about forty-five minutes, I thought I'd read from my abridgment of Johnson's Dictionary, beginning with the letter A:

abáft adv. [of abaftan, Sax. Behind.] From the fore-part of the ship, towards the stern. Dict.

abannítion n.s. [Lat. abannitio.] A banishment for one or two years, among the ancients, for manslaughter.

abba n.s. [Heb. ab] A Syriac word, which signifies father.

Relax: I have no plans to read a dictionary for three-quarters of an hour; it would make for a longer evening than you bargained for. But the oddity of this gesture — the thought of reading from a dictionary — reminds us that dictionaries aren't like most books. No one reads a dictionary. But if you don't read a book, what on earth do you do with it? And, more to the point, why should anyone care about a new edition of an unreadable book?

Let's begin with some qualifications. Some people through history have read dictionaries. Some scholars, for instance, get paid to do it: when Robert Burchfield was commissioned to supplement the Oxford English Dictionary, he read the whole thing through, all thirteen volumes, all 15,490 pages, all 178 miles of type. Others read dictionaries when they have plenty of time on their hands: while Malcolm X sat in prison, he tells us in his Autobiography, he read a dictionary and copied out many passages. And a number of famous writers have worked their way through Johnson's Dictionary itself. The historian William Robertson read the whole work twice, and Robert Browning "qualified" himself to be a poet "by reading and digesting the whole of Johnson's Dictionary." (I confess that, when I was an undergraduate, I owned a set of the Oxford English Dictionary, and I always hoped visitors to my dorm room would notice the bookmark sticking ostentatiously out of the first volume, and conclude that I was reading the whole thing.)

I don't expect you to read the entire book. Still, it's odd that every bookish person knows about Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, and many can quote a few famous definitions like those for oats and patron. Among bibliophiles it's perhaps the second most famous book in English, behind only the First Folio of Shakespeare's Works. And yet, for all the respect it gets, few people have any idea what to do with it, and hardly anyone has actually glimpsed at its contents. I imagine many people want to own it because it's the first English dictionary — right? Alas, that's nothing but a myth: there were dozens of English dictionaries by the time Johnson began work on his, and they'd been coming out for a century and a half.

Why, then, should we even bother flipping through it? It's not the first English dictionary, so simple historical priority is out. It's obviously not the most recent one: some books improve with age, but a dictionary? We're now a few months shy of the book's 249th birthday, well past its sell-by date. Surely it's of no more use than a thirty-year-old phone book. But in this talk I'd like to discuss some of the attractions this woefully obsolete work has for us today. I'm going to argue that Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language is not only worth browsing, not only worth reading; but I'll go so far as to say it's among the most fascinating books in all of English literature. The problem with reading from a dictionary comes from preconceptions about genre: if we regard a dictionary strictly as a collection of words, then only devoted word-lovers will care. Johnson knew better: "Words," he wrote, "are the daughters of earth, and . . . things are the sons of heaven." What I'm arguing for tonight is for an unfamiliar approach to a word book, one that gives full attention to the things inside it.

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Of course, for some people, words are plenty. Lovers of old, obscure, and eccentric words — those who enjoy The Superior Person's Book of Words — always get a kick out of the quirkier ones in Johnson. In fact you'll find many sesquipedalian juggernauts in his works, not only his Dictionary. He was widely criticized in his own day for his fondness for latinate diction; in 1767, the critic Archibald Campbell twitted him in a work called Lexiphanes, where Johnson appears spouting sentences like this: "Expulse hereditary aggregates and agglomerated asperities which may obumbrate your intellectual luminaries with the clouds of obscurity, or obthurate the porches of your intelligence with the adscititious excrement of critical malevolence." That's a bum rap; Johnson's language, contrary to the myth, could be admirably simple and direct. In his Dictionary, moreover, he gave less attention to these obscure "inkhorn terms" than any previous lexicographer.

But plenty of inkhorn words remain, and for word-lovers they can be a hoot. How about nidification, meaning "the act of building nests"? Or gemelliparous, "bearing twins"? You can impress the dickens out of your Scrabble-playing friends with words like ophiophagous ("Serpent-eating"), galericulate ("Covered as with a hat"), or decacuminated ("Having the top cut off"). There are also some priceless insults and put-downs, words like blunderhead, fopdoodle, and pickleherring. A blowze is "A ruddy fat-faced wench"; a clodpate is "A stupid fellow; a dolt; a thickscull"; and a slubberdegullion is "A paltry, dirty, sorry wretch."

Long-forgotten insults can be fun, but more interesting are words that are still around but with changed meanings. In 1755, for instance, a pencil was "A small brush of hair which painters dip in their colours" — Dixon-Ticonderoga is nowhere to be found. A shirt meant a man's underwear, and bowels could mean "Tenderness; compassion." A urinator was, curiously enough, "A diver; one who searches under water." Other changed meanings can be even more illuminating, because they tell us something about a changed world. Enthusiasm today, for instance, is one of the cardinal virtues: human resources departments expect to see it in every letter of recommendation. In Johnson's day, however, enthusiasm was "A vain belief of private revelation; a vain confidence of divine favour or communication" — in other words, a mental imbalance where someone was convinced God was talking to him. After the disastrous Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, when religion was used to justify often indiscriminate slaughter, Britons declared religious inspiration out of bounds in a civil society. To call an employee enthusiastic in the eighteenth century, therefore, would be to call him a dangerous lunatic.

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It's time to pause, though, because so far I've been making the case for reading old dictionaries, but not necessarily Johnson's Dictionary. After all, any dictionary from the past will tell us what pencil and enthusiasm meant when they were written. Why, then, publish selections from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary instead of, say, Edward Phillips's New World of Words or Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum? The difference is that Johnson's Dictionary is the only one that can be called a great work of literature. Johnson's uniquely powerful mind is visible on every page, and it's that mind that makes his Dictionary one of the few reference books worth reading so long after it became obsolete as a working reference.

We live in an age when dictionaries are the work of impersonal committees. The six-page masthead of the most recent American Heritage Dictionary, to consider a very fine modern example, sports a director of lexical publishing, an executive editor, an editorial project director, a managing editor, four editors, two associate editors, eleven consulting editors, an editorial assistant, four proofreaders, three citations assistants, an art researcher, two production supervisors, a database supervisor, three coordinators, three designers, three administrative assistants, five pre-press developers, thirty-six special contributors, seventy-nine previous special contributors, and a usage panel made up of 205 experts still drawing breath and another forty-three who didn't live to see the work's publication: a total of forty-one full-timers on the payroll, another 115 paid consultants, and 248 others who pitched in with substantial work. They're headquartered in a fine building here in Boston, and of course they have access to some of the finest libraries in the world. Compare this army of 409 scholars to what Johnson had at his disposal: himself, working part-time; six unreliable assistants he had to pay out of his own pocket; the attic in the house he was renting; and whatever books he happened to own or was able to borrow.

So how do you go about writing a dictionary by yourself? The first task is coming up with a list of words. Listing them off the top of your head probably isn't the most efficient way to go. Johnson arrived at a solution which was both new to English lexicography and influential for the entire subsequent tradition of dictionary-making: he drew his words from the greatest writers in English. Words, he realized, get their meaning not from the arbitrary whim of a lexicographer, but from the best people who've used them before. Convinced that "the chief glory of every people arises from its authors," he read widely in hundreds of English writers. This is an important decision. It seems to owe a lot to the English Common Law tradition, in which law arises not from edict but from precedent. And it has important lexicographical consequences, because it turns the greatest writers from Sidney to Swift into Johnson's collaborators in fixing the English language. He therefore included some 114,000 quotations to show how they had used these words: almost every word gets at least one quotation, and some tricky words can be illustrated by hundreds of quotations to show all the subtle shadings of meaning and usage. It also gives us another reason to read this book: the Dictionary is one of the most extensive anthologies of great English writing ever compiled.

At the head of the pack was Shakespeare, whose works Johnson knew intimately: after finishing his Dictionary, he turned his attention to producing an extensively annotated edition of Shakespeare, which appeared in eight volumes in 1765. He praised Shakespeare as the best guide to the language of "common life" and quoted from all of his plays. Other major authors from the late sixteenth through the middle eighteenth century provided most of the other quotations. Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope are quoted thousands of times. Johnson also read and quoted Christian writers like Richard Hooker and Richard Allestree, philosophers like John Locke and Joseph Glanvill, scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, statesmen like the Earl of Clarendon and Sir William Temple, and physicians like John Arbuthnot and John Quincy — all these authorities contribute hundreds of quotations.

Once the words and quotations were collected, Johnson began writing definitions and assembling the materials into a usable form. This was the most demanding work he did, and it's where he shows his talents most clearly. Many people think the hardest words to define are the most obscure, words like obnubilate and orphanotrophy. In fact they're as easy as can be. Much more challenging are the most common words in the language, those with many senses that require careful discrimination. No one before Johnson had ever tried to discern all the subtle distinctions between the various senses; he was the first to spell out the dozens of meanings of the most familiar English words. Civil with its twelve numbered senses, spirit with nineteen, and heart with twenty show his attention to some of the most difficult problems in lexicography. To give you an idea of the amount of effort a common word demands, consider take. Nathan Bailey, Johnson's most important predecessor, wrote an entry for take that occupies just 362 words of definition and illustration. Johnson's entries for take, on the other hand, with 133 numbered senses and 363 quotations, run to more than 8,000 words. Johnson's originality is often overstated, beginning with the "first dictionary" myth. But in this respect what he was doing was genuinely new in English lexicography. He was sailing in uncharted waters, and he was sailing alone.

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Sometimes the Dictionary suffered from Johnson's solitary labors: he made his share of blunders. The most famous came when he wrote that a pastern is "The knee of an horse." It's not; it's the part of the foot between the fetlock and the hoof. "A lady once asked him how he came to define Pastern" that way. Boswell tells us that "Instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once answered, 'Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.'" It was apparently ignorance that led him into other errors: although windward and leeward are direct opposites, for instance, Johnson defined them the same way, "Towards the wind." Not all the Dictionary's weaknesses, though, resulted from Johnson's ignorance: some apparently came from his knowing too much. If you were to read that a cough is "A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity," or that a network is "Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections," you wouldn't know much more than when you began.

But these are rare exceptions, and on balance we should be grateful that Johnson did his work without database supervisors and administrative assistants: it allowed his mind to roam at liberty. There was no bureaucratic Procrustes to squeeze him into someone's idea of what a dictionary is supposed to be. Modern readers are most attracted to those entries where he defies our notions of what's appropriate in a reference book, as when he introduces personal opinions. He's usually very restrained and businesslike in his definitions and usage notes, but every so often he can't help himself. We're taught that vaulty, for instance, is "A bad word," and that the spelling thro' is "Contracted by barbarians from through." Ruse is "A French word neither elegant nor necessary." Surely an editorial project director or a production supervisor would have told him to keep such opinions to himself.

He occasionally inserts himself into his work in other peculiar ways. The entry for lich, "A dead carcase," includes a curious interjection: "Salve magna parens." Classically educated readers would have been able to translate it as "Hail, great mother," but only those who knew Johnson's family history would realize this salutation to lich was actually his facetious tribute to the town of his birth, Lichfield. He likewise shows off his classical learning at the same time he confesses his humble origins in London's Grub Street, "Originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet." Not only does he include himself among these writers of "mean productions" by listing dictionaries among their products; he introduces a pair of untranslated Greek lines: "Khair' Ithake met' aethla, met' alge pikra/Aspasios teon oudas hikanomai." Once again, it would take a very learned reader to realize that he was ironically praising his humble writerly origins by invoking Ulysses' cry, "Hail, Ithaca! After pains and bitter hardships, I happily reach your soil."

Johnson was even present at the origins of a few words. Consider magazine, which in its literal sense means "A storehouse, commonly an arsenal or armoury, or repository of provisions." Then comes another, more familiar definition: "Of late this word has signified a miscellaneous pamphlet, from a periodical miscellany named the Gentleman's Magazine, by Edward Cave." This was the first publication to use the word magazine in its title: because it collected odds and ends from other publications, Cave named his new periodical after a storehouse or arsenal. Johnson was very involved in the Gentleman's Magazine, which began appearing in 1731. Three years later, while still in the Midlands, he wrote to Cave offering to contribute "short literary dissertations in Latin or English," but Cave, a savvy businessman who had a good idea of the market for Latin dissertations, didn't bite. Persistence paid off, though, and Johnson became a regular contributor in 1738.

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Entries like this, in which we can see first real magazine aborning, remind us that a dictionary gives a snapshot not only of the language but of the world: it captures a moment in history, and in some ways it gives us a better portrait of an age than a novel or even a textbook. Though the title page reads A Dictionary of the English Language, we can almost treat it as An Encyclopedia of the English Nation. This, I'll argue, is one of the best reasons for consulting, browsing, or even reading a dictionary, especially this dictionary, so long after it was written: Johnson's compendium of the language offers us a window onto his world.

The boundary between dictionaries and encyclopedias is notoriously difficult to draw. Dictionaries are supposedly about words and encyclopedias about things, but linguists today wring their hands over how to separate the two. Johnson doesn't seem to have worried about it much. He often provides much more information than a simple dictionary definition requires: many of his entries seem to belong in an encyclopedia rather than a lexicon. But we have no reason to complain, because these entries are often the most enlightening. Consider, for instance, the long entry for opium, adapted from John Hill's Materia Medica. Opium is "A juice, partly of the resinous, partly of the gummy kind." After discussing in some detail how it's grown and processed, Johnson notes that "The ancients were greatly divided about the virtues and use of opium; some calling it a poison, and others the greatest of all medicines. At present it is in high esteem." (So much for Just Say No.) Then come comments on its effects: "Its first effect is the making the patient cheerful, as if he had drank moderately of wine; it removes melancholy, excites boldness, and dissipates the dread of danger; and for this reason the Turks always take it when they are going to battle in a larger dose than ordinary. . . . An immoderate dose of opium," Johnson continues, "brings on a sort of drunkenness, cheerfulness and loud laughter, at first, and, after many terrible symptoms, death itself."

Such entries can teach us much about early modern medicine. Some medical words, for instance, strike us as surprisingly modern for 1755: anorexy is "Inappetency, or loathing of food." Alternative medicine enthusiasts may be surprised to hear Johnson discussing the merits of ginseng, "A root brought lately into Europe," which the "Asiaticks in general think . . . almost an universal medicine," and which Europeans consider useful for "convulsions, vertigoes, and all nervous complaints." Other medical entries sound quaintly antiquarian: not many of us complain of agues these days ("An intermitting fever, with cold fits succeeded by hot"), nor do we think the word abracadabra is likely to work as "A superstitious charm against agues." Kingsevil is "A scrofulous distemper, in which the glands are ulcerated, commonly believed to be cured by the touch of the king." Some entries remind us that eighteenth-century medicine could be sadly ineffectual: cancer is "A virulent swelling, or sore, not to be cured." And some of the more barbarous entries make you exceedingly glad you were born in the twentieth century rather than the eighteenth: a catheter, for instance, is "A hollow and somewhat crooked instrument, to thrust into the bladder."

The Dictionary is also valuable for its insights into the history of science, which was going through one of its most exciting periods. Consider chemistry. Johnson has to note that the word gas was "invented by the chymists," because it was a newfangled notion: Robert Boyle's gas laws, now familiar to every tenth-grader, were still fairly new, and Joseph Priestley had not yet discovered oxygen. Despite the impressive strides being made in chemistry, we can't quite forget that this was still a pre-modern world: phlogiston was still understood to be the inflammable principle in every body. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier wouldn't spell out the rudiments of modern atomic theory until 1789, after Johnson's death; as a result, elements are defined as "earth, fire, air, water, of which our world is composed." And the elixir is "The liquor . . . with which chymists hope to transmute metals to gold." The alchemist had not yet been entirely superseded by the chemist. (A chymist, by the way, is "A professor of chymistry; a philosopher by fire," a definition so impressive that I almost wish I hadn't gone to graduate school in English. I'd trade it all in to be a philosopher by fire.)

If chemistry was still straddling the line between the ancient and modern worlds, mathematics was advancing rapidly. Johnson was writing not long after Newton and Leibniz developed the calculus, and he describes this new "doctrine of infinitesimals, or infinitely small quantities, called the arithmetick of fluxions." We might be surprised to read a detailed entry about binary arithmetic, something most of us probably assumed was an invention of the computer age. (We're more surprised to see calculator and computer in 1755, until we realize they're not machines but people who do arithmetic.) And as sciences like astronomy made the world bigger, mathematics had to be prepared to describe it. Johnson refers to a recent "word invented by Locke" that tried to address this growing universe: a trillion is "A million of millions of millions." (Eat your heart out, Carl Sagan.)

Not all the technology described in the book had actually appeared. In the entry for volant, "Flying; passing through the air," we get a quotation from John Wilkins's Mathematical Magic on "The volant, or flying automata," which are "mechanical contrivances" with "a self-motion, whereby they are carried aloft in the air, like birds." In 1755 such "mechanical contrivances" were still science fiction: humans wouldn't leave the surface of the earth for another three decades, when the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated their first hot-air balloons. But Johnson was captivated by dreams of flight his entire life. He was alive when the Montgolfiers took off in June 1783, and in December of that year, when he had less than a year to live, he wrote excitedly to a friend, "The air ballon . . . has taken full possession, with a very good claim, of every philosophical mind and mouth. Do you not wish for the flying coach?"

Johnson's entry for electricity is among my favorites. He begins with a short definition lifted from a contemporary science writer, John Quincy: electricity is "A property in some bodies, whereby, when rubbed so as to grow warm, they draw little bits of paper, or such like substances, to them." But he then adds his own postscript: "Such was the account given a few years ago of electricity; but the industry of the present age . . . has discovered in electricity a multitude of philosophical wonders." He describes a few of these sublime wonders: "Bodies electrified by a sphere of glass . . . not only emit flame, but may be fitted with such a quantity of the electrical vapour, as, if discharged at once upon a human body, would endanger life." And then he concludes with a bit of news: "The philosophers are now endeavouring to intercept the strokes of lightning." Of course the "philosopher" most involved with "the strokes of lightning" was Benjamin Franklin, whose Experiments and Observations on Electricity appeared in 1751, just four years before the Dictionary was completed. The kite-and-key experiment is one of the most famous moments in the history of science, up there with Archimedes' "Eureka!" and Sir Isaac Newton's apple; it also has, unlike Newton's apple, the merit of being a true story. It's familiar to all of us from childhood, and it's hard to remember that it was once current events. But for Johnson's first readers this was news, more recent for them than the cloning of Dolly the sheep is for us. The age's excitement over the newly discovered properties of electricity is palpable in this entry.

Franklin isn't the only important scientist to be mentioned. Sir Isaac Newton was the scientific genius who dominated his age — "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night," wrote Pope; "God said, let Newton be, and all was light" — and he had been dead only twenty years when Johnson began work on the Dictionary. His Principia may have been the single most influential scientific book in history, with its famous laws of motion and gravitation. It therefore shouldn't be surprising that Newton is there to illustrate "that power which we call gravity." Even better known among lay readers was Newton's Opticks, first published in 1704, which demonstrated that white light was made up of all the colors in the spectrum. And so Johnson turns to Newton, who provides quotations for light, prism, spectrum, and rainbow.

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Newton's newly explained rainbow is a good place to conclude: I'd like to finish my talk by looking closely at this entry because it embodies much of what makes Johnson's Dictionary so fascinating. We start off with the headword, raínbow, with an accent marked on the first syllable. Then comes the abbreviation "n.s.," for "noun substantive," and an etymology — it's no surprise that rainbow comes from rain and bow.

Then comes Johnson's definition, which is worth examining carefully: "The iris; the semicircle of various colours which appears in showery weather." Notice that he first gives a simple synonym, "the iris" — a word which, though unfamiliar now, would have been known to all readers in 1755. It was not only familiar but evocative: literate readers would know the word came from the Greek goddess Iris, whose symbol was the rainbow. Then comes a clarification: "the semicircle of various colours which appears in showery weather." Critics have long enjoyed making fun of the density of Johnson's definitions and pointing to his "interstices between the intersections," "vellicated by some sharp serosity." But this one is more characteristic: it's clear, simple, and accessible — much more so, in fact, than the definition in the modern American Heritage Dictionary. There we're taught that a rainbow is "An arc of spectral colors appearing in the sky opposite the sun as a result of the refractive dispersion of sunlight in drops of rain or mist." "Arc" may be shorter than Johnson's "semicircle," but it's probably less informative for most readers; and "refractive dispersion" is likely to send beginners to other definitions before they can understand this one.

Perhaps, though, you want that encyclopedic information, and feel cheated that Johnson has merely said it appears in showery weather without explaining the physics of how. But Johnson doesn't duck the scientific questions: he actually provides more information than American Heritage, but it appears not in the definition but in the illustrative quotations. He includes a long quotation from Newton's Optics, at once showing the word's usage in a scientific context and giving his early readers up-to-date information on the physics of refraction straight from the man who discovered it:

This rainbow never appears but where it rains in the sunshine, and may be made artificially by spouting up water, which may break aloft, and scatter into drops, and fall down like rain; for the sun, shining upon these drops, certainly causes the bow to appear to a spectator standing in a true position to the rain and sun: this bow is made by refraction of the sun's light in drops of falling rain.

Of course the rainbow isn't merely refracted sunlight, whatever the scientists may say; it's also Iris, the beautiful messenger of Zeus and Hera, and it's the symbol of God's promise to his creation. And so alongside the scientific quotation we find several more literary ones. Sir Philip Sidney provides one: "Casting of the water in a most cunning manner, makes a perfect rainbow, not more pleasant to the eye than to the mind, so sensibly to see the proof of the heavenly iris." An even more famous writer appears with Sidney: Johnson quotes Shakespeare's King John, "To add another hue unto the rainbow," from the same speech that gives us "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily." He also quotes England's greatest satirist, Alexander Pope, whose Temple of Fame describes a splendid allegorical structure: "The dome's high arch reflects the mingled blaze,/ And forms a rainbow of alternate rays."

Although dictionaries are textual, rainbows are inevitably visual; that's why Johnson decided to draw on Henry Peacham, the seventeenth-century author of an often-reprinted work on watercolors. "The rainbow," writes Peacham, "is drawn like a nymph with large wings dispread in the form of a semicircle, the feathers of sundry colours." Johnson also quotes Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica, better known as Vulgar Errors, on the role of the Tower of Babel: many think it was built by the ancient Hebrews "to secure themselves from a second Deluge," but Browne says any Bible reader should know better: "They could not be ignorant of the promise of God never to drown the world, and the rainbow before their eyes to put them in mind of it."

Other old dictionaries might suggest some of this, but none had the scope of Johnson's encyclopedic dictionary — because no other lexicographer had the scope of Johnson's encyclopedic mind. He ranged over the entire circle of sciences, the entire round of learning — the very words he uses to define encyclopedia. Where else could we see England's greatest scientist standing next to her greatest playwright, the embodiment of courtliness jostling against the most vicious satirist, an artist describing erotic drawings while a scholar discusses God's promise on Ararat? He lets us approach the rainbow linguistically, scientifically, poetically, artistically, historically, and this is perfectly typical of Johnson's work.

In this talk I've drawn especially on entries from science, technology, and medicine, but many other kinds of encyclopedic information can be found in the Dictionary's pages. I mentioned Johnson's debt to the Common Law: in working on his Dictionary he drew on several legal dictionaries and handbooks, like John Cowell's Interpreter and John Ayliffe's Parergon Juris Canonici Anglicani. There are hundreds of legal terms from alias to vavasour, introducing us to the legal and political world that gave birth to our own legal system. We get a sense of the various social ranks in Johnson's world, from the lowliest bootcatchers, skipkennels, and kitchenwenches to the noblest soldans, mandarins, and viziers. The Dictionary includes a long entry on "a drink prepared from . . . berries, very familiar in Europe for these eighty years" — he means coffee — and another "Chinese plant, of which the infusion has lately been much drunk in Europe" — tea, both comparative novelties in eighteenth-century England.

I doubt I've convinced many of you to read the Dictionary from cover to cover — or, since it originally appeared in two volumes, from cover to cover to cover to cover — all 2300 pages, all 43,000 entries, all 114,000 illustrative quotations. Still, I hope I've persuaded you that this obsolete and unreadable book is still worth a browse. The case I'm trying to make is that even those who don't care a whit for the principles of lexicography, who don't thrill to novel theories of etymology, who can't spare a moment for the finer points of phrasal verbs, can still find much to care about in the Dictionary. It's the most comprehensive book of its age, not least because it's made up of bits and pieces from thousands of other books. As John Dryden said of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "Here is God's plenty!"