On Two Seminal Events

“Monday Musings” for Monday September 15, 2014

Volume IV. No 37/137


Constitution Day and the  Birth of Samuel Johnson, Father of the English Dictionary

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

This week portends occurrence of two seminal, historic and consequential events worthy of observing and celebrating:

First, The US Constitution and Constitution Day:

On Sept. 17, 1787, exactly 227 years ago, the Founding Fathers of our beloved Republic signed the sacred document we know and cherish as the U.S. Constitution, giving birth to our great nation. No, America is not great because of its prosperity. It is not great because of the proverbial American Dream of a brick home with a two-car garage. It is not great because it gives us security, opportunity and order. It is not great because of its advanced technology and its number of Nobel Laureates in science, medicine, literature and humanities.  America is great because it is a nation of laws and because of its absolute commitment to uphold and maintain the supremacy of the rule of law. Today, Constitution Day, it is fitting to take a psychological scalpel, analyze and dissect what goes into America’s reverential devotion to upholding the rule of law. These two cases, one national, one local, dramatically and eloquently give us the reasons.

Psychiatrist Nidal Hasan went on a rampage on Nov. 5, 2009, killing 13 and wounding 32 of his fellow soldiers at his Texas military base. Speaking on his own behalf in court, he said, “The evidence will clearly show that I am the shooter.” Hasan is paralyzed below the chest and requires special medical attention at Brooke Army Medical Center. He is incontinent and in need of round-the-clock nursing care and rehabilitation. Also, there is a special security team assigned to protect his life day and night. He was tried in a specially fortified court room. Sources familiar with his care report that Hasan’s security detail rivals that of the president. The cost is in the millions.

Yes, the majesty of the supremacy of the rule of law in our beloved land of America is dramatically demonstrated by how we are treating an admitted killer. The American Dream is not vacation homes, technology and prosperity. It is our laws, our sacred Constitution and the sacrifice of the Founding Fathers that are the muscles, bones and spirit of the American Dream. The supremacy of the rule of law and not the whims of a dictator, a king, a shah or an ayatollah is the foundation of the majesty of American democracy.

On the local scene, a few years ago, with astonishment and awe, I sat and watched the court proceedings of former Gov. Michael Easley on television. I ws astonished, because a former chief executive officer of a sovereign state was being sentenced, and in awe, because of the unshakable and uncompromising supremacy of the rule of law in America.

America, from time to time, may go down financially we may experience high national debt and low employment, but we bounce back out of the doldrums. Nowhere on earth the sanctity and supremacy of the rule of law are so cherished and enshrined in our nation’s psyche. Our responsibility as Americans is to partake of the liberty, be a patriotic citizen and vote. Also,  In my view, the catechism of being an American should consist of a good knowledge, if not verbatim memorization, of four documents. They are The Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, The Bill of Rights, The Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address. I believe every American child by 9thor 10th grade ought to memorize the 7200 words of The Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights, The Federalist Papers, and GW’s 6091-word Farewell Address to gain an appreciation for the responsibility of being and American. These four documents are the civic catechism of our beloved nation. We should be thankful for them. Long live America.

The second event is The birth of Dr. Samuel Johnson: 

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- 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 the 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 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. The book “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester gives you a delicious read. Wonder where are the Samuel Johnsons of today!

Johnson visited the surgeon  in his mental hospital ward often.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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