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Eighteenth Century British literature can be a hard sell for high school students: excepting Gulliver’s Travels, it seems they would rather chew through the ossified gum underneath their desks than the period’s personal essays and heroic couplets. Given their general reaction to the century, studying Dr. Johnson’s lexicography would not seem a sure-fire plan for pedagogical fireworks. Nevertheless, it was; I had underestimated the emotional potential of high school lexicography. Simply reading portions of Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language did not ignite my students’ interest, but reading his entries with the prospect of writing their own caused a few mental sparks. It was, however, the process of defining and sharing these words--their words and their world--that brought literary ignition amidst a seemingly inflammable century. Why? There are peripheral reasons which I will discuss, but the central fuel was the emotional element of lexicography, the potential for revenge and release.
Our crucial first step was acquaintance with "the Great Lexicographer" (Dixon 220). We needed the invigoration of knowing the man, and his friend Boswell introduced us. In our text’s excerpt from his The Life of Samuel Johnson, the passage which ingratiated Johnson with students was his initial joke at the biographer’s expense:
for with that quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression "come from Scotland," which I used in the sense of being of that country: and, as if I had said that I had come away from it, or left, retorted, "That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." (578) Perhaps Johnson’s cockiness or Boswell’s reaction--"This stroke stunned me a good deal; and when we had sat down, I felt myself not a little embarrassed, and apprehensive of what might come next" (578)--resonated with the students’ experience. Either way, reading and discussing this passage coalesced the 18th C. parlor and the 20th C. locker room, instilling some respect and preconditioning recognition of Johnson’s witty agenda.
Analysis of Johnson’s preface to A Dictionary of the English Language deepened their relationship with the lexicographer. We appreciated his sarcasm in contrasting his labor with that of other scholars and artists: Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries . . . doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths through which learning and genius press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress.
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"Revenge and Release in High School Lexicography." 123HelpMe.com. 29 Mar 2020
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Quantifying Johnson’s Herculean task through comparison with the French lexicographers enriched our understanding of his sarcasm’s psychological impetus. More importantly, though, some familial biographical information made Johnson’s revelation that "most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave" (Prentice 569) poignantly human, and his dictionary entries the work of an honorary friend.
A friend on the Central Coast, however, would have known far more about barbecue. In our Prentice Hall Literature text, Johnson defined it thusly, "to ba’rbecue. A term used in the West Indies for dressing a hog whole; which, being split to the backbone, is laid flat upon a large gridiron . . ." (570). His definition provided a point of engagement with the past and an opportunity for a barbecue contest in the present. I asked the students to define the special nature of barbecuing, encouraging them to write humorous entries. To do so, I presented some of Johnson’s; from "ha’tchet-face" (571) to "shill-I-shall-I" (572), the good doctor’s comic imagination freed theirs.
However, there was something besides humor in these entries which drew the students: something saucy, something sassy, something which had an energetic undercurrent of revenge. Given that angst and social vengeance seem to be the Tigris and Euphrates of the distant, mysterious Mesopotamia which is the teenage world, some of Johnson’s overtly subjective definitions were of interest to my students. We noticed the agenda behind Johnson’s definitions of "Whig" and "Tory" (Norton 2407); likewise, the bitterness avenged in the "patron" definition--"Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery" (Prentice 573)--caught our attention. Maybe it was this definition’s contemptuous questioning of authority, its rebel yell, that had a familiar ring.
It could be argued that such a focus on the sarcastically subjective in Johnson’s definitions was an irresponsible one. Indeed, our path may have diverged from those of lexographical historians: James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb recorded the different road most traveled by: "To Johnson’s definitions, his careful distinction and classification of words, the historian gives high praise, but praise a little tempered by references to tart Johnsonian humor or stilted Johnsonese" (2). Nevertheless, in the buyer’s market of British literature the "tart Johnsonian humor" was what kept his Dictionary saleable. Also, consider Richard R. Lodwig and Eugene F. Barrett’s claim: "Modern dictionaries give us much more accurate information about the language, but the early ones were more charming" (105). In light of Lodwig and Barrett’s praise for works such as Johnson’s, his entries’ idiosyncratic elements may be legitimate selling points.
Legitimate foci or no, we might be accused of colonizing the lexicographical tradition for its humor. Such an accusation would be unjust: by studying Johnson’s human, subjective connection with his definitions we are practicing a intellectual skill valued in modern lexicographers. In The Gentle Art of Lexicography as Pursued and Experienced by an Addict, the Oxford-educated Eric Partridge argues for privileging the relationship of humans to their words: To ignore the human origin, the human dependence, the human nexus, is fatal; to underestimate the people-speech interdependence is dangerous . . . One does not need to be a psychiatrist; one does need to be a profoundly sympathetic psychologist. In less pompous language, onne needs to understand human beings, especially the way their minds work, their impulses, their longings and their ambitions. It also helps considerably to have a keen sense of humor. (31)In a year-long survey of sixteen centuries of British literature, we do not have time for analysis of the "people-speech interdependence" as it pertains to lexicography; however, our day noticing the "human nexus" between Johnson and his language was time well spent--and compressed, for he also inspired students’ "keen sense of humor."
The quality and quantity of humor in my students’ definitions were extraordinary (the "human nexus" between myself and this sentence is as objective as possible). They wrote definitions in response to a two-part assignment: the first was an entry in the barbecue contest explained above, and the second was a definition of a word particular to their school, something that an outsider would not know and that they might want to remember when a grandparent.
Their definitions’ human investment was considerable. Let me define my term (Eric Partridge was right; lexicography is addictive): human investment (n.) 1. the presence of creativity and feeling 2. any literary element which transcends the modicum of effort required for homework credit (five points per definition--there still isn’t big money for the individual lexicographer). What fueled this human investment? Primarily, it was emotional release, and secondarily revenge, affectionate revenge.
I observed two types of emotional release in my students’ definitions and illustrative sentences: the rebel yell and the joyous yawp--I don’t think that Whitman would mind lending us the yawp. The joyous yawps were unabashed celebrations of youth, their separate world. Some entries rejoiced in high school sports; others contained paeans to teenage freedom,or friends with driver’s licenses. These contained a singular emotional release,the expression of the joy of friends driving in loco parentis.
However, all is not felicitous on the teenage front; hence, some definitions contained the joyous release of a rebel yell. Like Dr.Johnson elbowing the ribs of patrons, several students’ definitions released happily subversive feelings.
Likewise humorous were the many definitions exuding affectionate revenge. These definitions made fun of beloved authority figures; some of whom took the heat in the barbecue definitions. When reading these definitions, one senses a special energy, a reverent irreverence that vivifies them.
My notice of release and revenge in students’ definitions is speculative; I have no way of knowing. Similarly, our in-class analysis of Dr. Johnson’s definitions are speculative, at best. Robert DeMaria Jr. writes, "But the ‘man’ one finds in the Dictionary,or indeed in all of Johnson’s works, is a public presentation circumscribed by the larger, less regular, and finally unknowable person who created it" (19). Regardless, our in-class days and homework nights of lexicographical thunder created powerful definitions. What exactly caused the literary electricity? If the process were repeated, would lightning strike again? I don’t know, but I enjoyed being in the storm.
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DeMaria, Robert, Jr. Johnson's Dictionary and the Language of Learning. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.
Dixon, Arthur W. "dr. johnson and emily post." The Role of the Dictionary. Ed. Philip B. Gove. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
Johnson, Samuel. "A Dictionary of the English Language." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. 5th ed. Vol. 1.
New York: Norton, 1986.
---. "from A Dictionary of the English Language." Prentice Hall Literature: The English Tradition. 2nd. ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
---. "from the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language." Prentice Hall LIterature: The English Tradition. 2nd. ed. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.
Lodwig, Richard R. and Eugene F. Barrett. Words, Words, Words: Vocabularies and Dictionaries. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden, 1973.
Partridge, Eric. The Gentle Art of Lexicography as Pursued and Experienced by an Addict. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
Sledd, James H. and Gwin J. Kolb. Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: Essays in the Biography of a Book. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.