Samuel Johnson


“Monday Musings” for Monday September 17, 2012

Volume II. No. 33/85

Birth of Samuel Johnson, the Day History was Born

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*


This is a special week for the lovers of the lexicographers, especially the lovers of  the English language, because Samuel Johnson, the author and compiler of the first English dictionary was born on September 18, 1709,  He spent his life compiling and collecting words while studying at Oxford for a doctorate degree.  The book was finally published on April 7, 1755.  In comparison, the Académie Française had forty scholars spending forty years to complete its dictionary, which prompted Johnson to claim, “This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred.  As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman“.

Academie Francaise was literally created by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, a full one hundred and twenty years before Johnson’s English Dictionary.  So, Samuel Johnson had a lot of catching up to do.

 Permit me to relay a personal connection: The day Dr. johnson announced the completion and publication of his dictionary was on Thursday April 7, 1755, at 11:00 AM.  I arrived in United States, New York’s Idlewild Airport, on Thursday April 7, 1955, at 11:00 AM, exactly 200 years after the birth of the first English dictionary.  While learning the English language and preparing to enter college pre-medical studies in September 1955, I learned about Dr. Johnson, and through the auspices of the Library of Congress, managed to find a copy of his original dictionary containing fifty thousand words which I memorized.  In addition, I was memorizing the 285 thousand words of the 1955 edition of Oxford Dictionary.  By the way, the first edition of the Oxford Dictionary was published 150 years after Johnson’s original dictionary.  The love affair between me, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the English language, over the years has only deepened.

We take our language for granted.  But look, the English language is so fresh and young.  It did not exist 2000 years ago.  Every English word we use was coined by someone, there was a need for its invention, and there is always an exciting story behind the circumstances of the creation.  In depth learning of English words and language makes you a personal friend out of every word, so conceivable you can make 285,000 friends.  No language on earth gives you free access to its ancestral roots—etymology—and no language is as flexible, changing and accommodating as the English lexicon.   Not only one may memorize and learn the meaning and use of each English word, but also learn about the etymology and origin of each word.  I recommend this project as a stimulating pursuit.   To learn about the need and the occasion for creation of each English word, the person responsible for coining of the words, and the changes the words have undergone since their coinage.   I my early days in America, I truly fell in love with the Samuel Johnson’s English language, and continue to cherish that precious love affair.

Back to this week’s hero:   Dr. Johnson was a complex sort of fellow.  He was posthumously diagnosed as a possible Tourette Syndrome victim (remember our Monday Musings about beloved Mozart who had the same presumed diagnosis)  This is a condition whose victims engage in scatolalia, coprophilia, and uncontrollable motions-tics-with socially unacceptable manners that approach vulgarity.  In case of Samuel Johnson, these grotesque habits and gestures were aggrandized by his giant like appearance, over six feet tall and a huge girth.  Children often either ridiculed him or were afraid of him.  Dr. Johnson studied and later on taught at Pembroke College, Oxford.  He was a brilliant man, a brilliant writer, and a brilliant poet and historian.  He had a rich scholastic and literary heritage, coming from a lineage of physicians and scholars.  Stories are abound that the Oxford aficionados, perhaps because of jealousy, delayed conferring the doctorate degree upon him.  In return, in a true passive aggressive way, he delayed completion of his dictionary by several years…

Another very interesting story about Dr. Johnson is that he had a cadre of helpers who submitted material for the compilation of his dictionary.  Among them, there was a surgeon, afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia who in a bout of delusion and paranoia had killed an innocent victim.  He was put away for life in a mental hospital.  This brilliant surgeon contributed as many as 5000 entries to Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.  Johnson visited the surgeon  in his mental hospital ward often.

*The writer is a Distinguished Life Fellow American Psychiatric Association, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill.  He is the Founding Editor and Editor in chief, Wake County Physician Magazine(1995-2012)


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