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samuel johnson

Johnson and Grose: lexicography’s odd couple

April 15 marks the anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a work that’s today universally recognized as an astonishing feat of solo lexicography. The publication, in 1755, rightly attracted great attention; David Garrick wrote a poetic eulogy to mark the achievement in the Public Advertiser, describing Johnson as ‘like a hero of yore’. Reviews were plentiful, too, and, though mixed in their response, they were united in acknowledging an extraordinary effort.

Yet, in spite of the enormity of Johnson’s output, there was no grand celebration, no party to launch his work. In fact, when Johnson received a letter of praise from his friend Charles Burney, some two years after the Dictionary came out, his response was telling: “Yours is the only letter of goodwill that I have yet received, though indeed I am promised something of that sort from Sweden”.

Had there been a party, there is one notable contemporary of Johnson’s who is unlikely to have made the guest list, even though he too was a lexicographer, and his achievements equally extraordinary. The two men even shared the same ambition: to record faithfully the English of their day. Yet their focus couldn’t have been more different.

Grose’s alternative approach

Captain Francis Grose was an essayist and an antiquarian with a passion for the alternative language that Johnson dismissed. His pioneering work on slang, The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, was published thirty years after Johnson’s Dictionary, and is the result of an eager fascination with the words on the city streets. Grose’s sources were the ne’er-do-wells of London, the cutpurses, gamblers, highwaymen and prostitutes of its underworld. His aim was to put on record a patois that had hitherto been shunned by collectors of language – an effort that was as courageous as it was unprecedented.

In his Dictionary, Johnson‘s first definition of the term ‘cant’, an older word for slang, is of ‘a corrupt dialect used by beggars and vagabonds’. He left slang out of his linguistic record because, as he saw it, its terms ‘cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of the language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation’. One of his favourite labels for a slang term was ‘low’: shabby he defined as ‘a word that has crept into conversation and low writing, but ought not to be admitted into the language’.

Complementary compilers

Yet precisely because of their vastly different approaches, Johnson’s and Grose’s dictionaries deliver together a far more complete snapshot of 18th-century English than either of them singly could hope to offer. While Johnson looked to the literary greats to exemplify his terms, Grose’s sources were the London taverns, brothels, slums, and gambling-houses he visited during his midnight walks. It was from their occupants that he learned that to ‘blow the groundsils’ was ‘to lie with a woman on the floor’, that ‘abel-whackets’ were ‘blows given on the palm of the hand with a twisted handkerchief; a jocular punishment among seamen, who sometimes play at cards for wackets’, and that ‘ballocks’, besides being ‘the testicles of a man or beast’, was ‘also a vulgar name for a parson’.

Where entries do overlap between the two dictionaries, the contrasts between definitions is telling. Take ‘Bilingsgate language’, which Johnson describes dismissively as ‘a cant word, borrowed from Bilingsgate in London, where there is always a crowd of low people, and frequent brawls and foul language.’ Grose’s explanation is more open-handed: ‘Bilingsgate is the market where the fish women assemble to purchase fish, and where in their dealings and disputes they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand.’  Johnson could scarcely have been pithier about a ‘blowsabella’: ‘a ruddy fat-faced wench’; for Grose, she was ‘a woman whose hair is dishevelled, and hanging about her face; a slattern’.

If they’d ever met…

It’s easy to imagine that any encounter between Johnson and Grose might have been an uncomfortable one. And yet there are unexpected similarities between the two men that go beyond their absorption in language. Johnson was by nature a charitable and sympathetic man, and he made his house far more open to the purveyors of slang than he did the pages of his Dictionary. Boswell relates how his house off Fleet Street became a haven for drunks, prostitutes and poets down on their luck. Johnson himself pronounced: ‘I am a man of the world. I live in the world, and I take, in some degree, the colour of the world as it moves along’. Grose, meanwhile, was by all accounts a champion drinker, who entertained his friends with witty anecdotes during long evenings of wine and debate: the very sort of evening that Johnson also relished.

Sadly, any record of any meeting between the two men has yet to be found. For now, as we approach 15 April, it would be nice to imagine the Captain being the first to raise a glass to his fellow lexicographer in a toast to a remarkable work. And perhaps, to picture him pulling Johnson aside a little later, to tell him about the colour of the world he might have missed.

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