Poetry or dictionary

In 1755, Samuel Johnson completed his Dictionary of the English Language. You might think that he would have been happy about that but he seems to have been at best ambivalent. In the preface, he writes about his ‘dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer.’ What did he mean by that? If you have a look through Johnson’s dictionary today, you begin to get an idea. Take, for example, the entry for ‘cat’: a ‘domestic animal that catches mice.’ Look up ‘mouse’: ‘The smallest of all beasts; a little animal haunting houses and corn fields, destroyed by cats.’ Now this might not sound all that dreamy or poetical but, given that earlier dictionaries didn’t tend to include such everyday words, Johnson might well be seen as a little avant-garde. Furthermore, Johnson placed quotations alongside his definitions, partly to show that he wasn’t making things up (that’s the lexicographer in him) and partly to assemble a vast encyclopedia of his own reading (that’s the poet). For Johnson did not intend his dictionary to be read as we might read one today, by ‘mousing’ over a word on a screen or by typing it into a search engine. Instead, it was a book to heave up onto a stand and read. As you did so, all sorts of connections would have appeared – and not just the life-and-death story of a mouse. Lines from Shakespeare, for instance, as well as from other poets, philosophers, historians and scientists would have mingled before your eyes. Johnson was pleased about that aspect of the book but overall he considered it ‘defective’. Perhaps he thought, on reflection, that it encouraged the wrong kind of reading? Perhaps he foresaw our later acts of searching online? Or perhaps he was just humbled by the immense task he had set himself? (He was the cat that couldn’t catch the mouse.) Whatever the reason, his disappointment suggests a way to approach entries in dictionaries today – as we hover our cursor over a word and are told what it means. They are words, we should recall, written on waking: poetry that has found out that it was a dictionary all along. How then, we might ask, can we get back to sleep?

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