Note: From time to time on #thiswritinglife I will post reviews of books about the building blocks of our craft.

If on the way to looking up “occurrence” for the seventy-third time to see if it’s two c’s or two r’s (both) and an “e” or and “a” (an e) and get sidetracked first by osmometry, and then of course osmotic, then you are going to love Henry Hitchings’ Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. He writes

The eighteenth century was seized by a rage for order

which was sadly lacking in every facet of life in London at that time.

No one better captured the city’s toxic character than William Hogarth…Hogarth’s most celebrated etching, which appeared in 1751, is titled Gin Lane; no artistic fantasy, it is a piece of documentary evidence.


Language, too, was rowdy and in Hitchens’ word, “slippery.” One way of imposing order was to collect words in that all! new! and improved! construct, a dictionary, which set the standard for lexicography ever after and within which today there are as many treasures to be found as there were when it was first published. Did you know that as late as 2000, American jurists were consulting the Dictionary to try to figure out what the founders meant by the word “declare,” as in “declaration of war?”

It is strange to reflect that as long as the American Constitution remains intact, Johnson’s Dictionary will have a role to play in American law.

Divided into chapters headed with definitions from the Dictionary in alphabetical order, written with affection, respect and not a little glee, this book is going to make you want to go out and do like Robert Browning did, read the Dictionary from cover to cover in preparation for a life of writing poetry.

Be warned, even as we speak a book about the index lurks on my to-read shelf.

Chatter Writing

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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