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Well defined

An illuminating account of Samuel Johnson and his quirky, wide-ranging, miraculous dictionary

Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary
By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 292 pp., illustrated, $24

There are two famous books associated with Samuel Johnson, one by him, one about him. The latter, of course, is James Boswell's ''The Life of Samuel Johnson," one of the crowning achievements of English biography. The former is not really a book at all -- or rather, it is a special kind of book, a work of reference, perhaps the most celebrated example of the genre: Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. Published in 1755, the dictionary was the fruit of over eight years of lexicographic toil, an endeavor that tested Johnson's will (and very nearly broke his spirit). One of the glories of the Enlightenment Age, the dictionary teems with illustrative snippets drawn from English literature, science and history, law and philosophy. Its 42,000 entries were not only meant to correct and instruct; they added up to an opinionated, quasi-history of the English language, infused with strong doses of moral uplift. The dictionary is searching and systematic, yet all too human in its prejudices and blind spots. It is, above all, a reflection of Johnson's character.

As Henry Hitchings writes in ''Defining the World," his marvelous account of the making of the dictionary, Johnson's work is ''doughty, authoritative, wide-ranging; lavish in its citations and self-consciously literary; patriotic, pious, and politically charged; sometimes quirky, often elegant, and occasionally obscure; keenly attentive to many of the age's new developments, yet negligent of others." (As with Johnson the man, descriptions of the dictionary just pile up.) Let me now cut right to the chase: ''Defining the World" is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year. Hitchings is a buoyant, zestful writer, sympathetic to Johnson throughout, but attentive to his failures. Hitchings himself has a keen lexicographic bent, and sprinkles his pages with illuminating glosses on Johnson's definitions. Also delightful is how Hitchings evokes the presence and temperament, by turns neurotic and assured, crotchety and inquisitive, of ''the book-muncher, the pagemaker and the cultural steeplejack" who pulled off a remarkable intellectual feat.

First, some back story. When Johnson undertook his project in 1746, he was 37, living in London, where he had spent the past decade toiling in that special region of the republic of letters known as Grub Street. Province of hack writers and ambitious litterateurs, freelance wits, and two-bit pamphleteers, Grub Street was ''shorthand for the pains and perils of authorship: poverty and sickness, dirt and disease, plagiarism and backbiting." If Johnson tried mightily to evade these perils, his dictionary was very much a Grub Street production, one subsidized by a group of London booksellers, and promoted through the city's humming literary networks.

After he accepted the commission from publisher Robert Dodsley, an influential figure in 18th-century letters, Johnson set to work quickly, doing preliminary research, and cranking out a short pamphlet the following year describing his intentions. ''My idea of an English dictionary," he wrote, is one ''by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened."

Among other things, the dictionary is a titanic feat of reading and organization. Johnson devoured thousands of volumes in his research; his London garret, writes Hitchings, ''became a sort of backstreet abattoir specializing in the evisceration of books."

Though the dictionary reflects the singular vision of one man, Johnson did not work alone. He employed a crew of itinerant hacks to do the grunt work of transcribing passages and hauling books to Johnson's quarters. Despite the frenzy of activity, the project dragged on. Johnson battled fits of gloom and despair, and tended to his ailing wife. But he kept at it and finished the job. When the dictionary appeared, he was justifiably relieved -- and pleased. Surveying the fat volume, which weighed some 20 pounds, Johnson wrote to a friend that it was ''vasta mole superbus," ''proud in its great bulk."

What, then, will you find as you flip through its pages? Hitchings's assessments of Johnson's etymological modus operandi are acute and probing. As he notes, Johnson's method was to first define a word in its most tangible and literal sense, and then move outward to ''the most abstract, metaphoric or specialized." He was relentless in tackling the most basic words (and thus hardest to define): For example, he provides 16 definitions for ''in," 20 for ''up," 15 for ''turn," 14 for ''time." There are dozens of entries for scientific terms -- atom, fossil, gravity, parallax, telescope -- which reflected the ferment of an era obsessed with systematizing knowledge. Though Johnson, ever the moralist, drew heavily on religious and educational texts, his aim was to show English as a living, breathing thing, so he packed the dictionary with bawdy slang and colorful put-downs -- next time somebody cuts you off on I-93, how about letting fly with ''Fopdoodle!" or ''Jobbernowl!"

What makes the dictionary so unique -- if not eccentric -- are Johnson's highly personal definitions. He was a man of many peeves, and freely notes his disapproval when a word offends him: ''banter" is ''a barbarous word, without etymology, unless it be derived from [the French verb] 'badiner' "; ''ruse" is ''a French word neither elegant nor necessary"; ''finesse" is ''an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language." (A hardened Francophobe, Johnson waged a small war on gallicisms -- never mind that a hefty store of English came via France.) Johnson can come off like a stern schoolmaster, always ready to rap your knuckles for an ill-chosen word, but this is part of his gruff charm. It's not hard to see why the young Boswell, who met Johnson some years after the dictionary's publication, would devote himself to chronicling the great man's life and times.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The Boston Globe.

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