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January 24, 2012

Bless you, Dr. Johnson.

Jog'ger: One who moves heavily and dully. -Dr. Johnson's English Dictionary

Samuel Johnson was one of the great prose stylists of the English language. The last spoken words of the seventy-five-year-old author and lexicographer, addressed to a young girl who came to visit him during his final moments, were "God bless you, my dear."

His magisterial English Dictionary appeared in 1755, and for almost a century afterwards, young people who wanted to look up a word would turn to Johnson and they still can. Johnson's definitions are so quirky that, although long since superseded, they're much treasured, and the Dictionary is still available.

While many ironists today would not argue with his definition of a jogger, anybody found running in Johnson's day would have been thought mad or bad or both. The meaning Johnson intended was that of the line, by the English poet John Dryden, "They, with their fellow joggers of the plough."

There is another Johnsonian definition that is perhaps as resonant now as it was in 1755, or indeed at the time of the Boston Tea Party-that of excise, which Johnson took from the Puritan poet Andrew Marvell: "Excise,/With hundred rows of teeth, the shark exceeds." Johnson's definition?  "A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."

Were it not for the fact that there are so many unemployed these days, wage slaves everywhere might go along with Johnson's job: 1) "A low, mean lucrative busy affair"; 2) "Petty, piddling work, a piece of chance work." He defined his own job sardonically as that of "Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge," although later in life he said of the Dictionary that "I knew very well what I was undertaking, and very well how to do it, and have done it very well."

In the course of over two-hundred years it would be surprising, of course, if some words had not been lost. Grum ("surly") has gone the way of gry ("anything of little value") and gulch, which today suggests Western movies but in Johnson's time meant "a little glutton."

Johnson himself had to stomach a lot of belly laughs from the critics of his contribution to English when George III came to the throne and in 1762 offered him a princely pension of £300 a year. In the Dictionary (and in his most idiosyncratic form), Johnson had defined pension thus:

"In England, it is generally understood to mean pay given to a State hireling for treason to his country." But Johnson the lexicographer was also a royalist and a realist: he pocketed the doubloons and, for once dropping his professional disdain of foreign words, announced himself “pénètre with His Majesty's goodness."