For the man who taught us to write better English

We had Samuel Johnson’s Preface to the English Dictionary as one of the prose lessons during our 11th grade. Now, once you come to high school (why tell only in 11th and 12th), language subjects don’t count.English classes become a free hour where most of the class will be finishing their assignments for the other subjects while somebody keeps reading out the passages beautifully  with intonation so that atleast a few might be able to appreciate the beauty of the poem/prose. But in a class where almost everybody is already in the rat race for getting into reputed engineering/medical colleges (with the slightest clue about the Engineering course they would take or the specialization after MBBS),all the mellifluous reading falls on deaf ears. Looking back, my respect for my high school/higher secondary English teachers has increased manifold and each one of them seem to personify an epitome of patience.

So, when we started out with the Preface prose, the teacher gave us a quick brief up about who is Samuel Johnson-the guy who pored over n number of books and spent every day to put out the correct usage/spelling of the most common words-is it ake/ache or fuel/fewel so that people get the word/spelling/phrase correct. If he had not started putting out the dictionary, I can very well imagine the sorry state of my emails/posts(which are very few and get published on blue moon days) if I get confused between X/Y or M/N. Now, we have spell check, auto-correct, grammar check etc and its easy to forget the humble forerunner for all these in this day and age.

I remember thinking to myself-“which guy starts a preface on such a grudging/pessimistic tone?” on seeing these words “It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries...”But as the lesson progressed, I had almost decided that the author wanted the world to know of his hardships in completing this “monumental” work but still I could not help admiring the way he had with words-shooting straight and getting the correct words so that nothing is left unsaid. Still, it seemed to be  too much of a rant and rave about his hardships and not in the tone of the regular prefaces in novels-Some authors thank their kids, grand-kids(probably for being well behaved children and not playing with their writing materials/drafts),pets. Although put in a lighter note, I had never come across such a preface during the entire reading years of my life.

But when we reached the end of the lesson, these words “I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds…”made me understand somewhat why the tone had been so embittered– and for the first time I could sympathize with him. And these words,” I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds…” touched a raw nerve as even a happy-go-lucky 17-year old could understand that he was referring to his wife.

On Sep 18th,this year,which happened to Johnson’s 308th birthday, Google had a regular super-creative doodle commemorating his birthday and by habit I fell to reading about the doodle. Seeing Johnson’s name, I was piqued and read the extensive but very informative Wikipedia article about Johnson. Johnson’s life loomed before my eyes and the words “…. the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow” also would not convey enough about the challenges and difficulties he had to face not only while working on the English dictionary but his whole life having to deal with Tourette’s syndrome,bouts of depression and a host of other illnesses and not-so-stable finances(to the point of getting arrested for an outstanding debt of  £5 18s). I could for the first time understand the complexity of the task he had undertaken after getting to read the historic context about how the  dictionary came about.And above all,he was a visionary  and of generous nature when he writes thus:

The chief glory of every people arises from its authours[…]but I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.

If there is a higher purpose then this says it all:tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language. 

But I can say that the most crushing blow for him was solitude after all his near and dear ones predeceased him.He puts it  forth very clearly when he wrote:

The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. The neighbourhood is impoverished. I had once Richardson and Lawrence in my reach. Mrs. Allen is dead. My house has lost Levet, a man who took interest in everything, and therefore ready at conversation. Mrs. Williams is so weak that she can be a companion no longer. When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, except that Dr. Brocklesby for a little keeps him at a distance. Dinner with a sick woman you may venture to suppose not much better than solitary. After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?

And my next read was no doubt his Preface to the English Dictionary. And this time,the words were not only awe-inspiring for their sheer eloquence but also for putting forth the trials in as-is tone without meaning to evoke sympathy-his fighting spirit shone forth will superb brilliance when he elaborates his extensive research and the factors influencing his choices in spelling a word or usage of phrase despite knowing that the work he had undertaken was not a one-man-task and can never be immortal.For a person to sit at it for 9 years,day in and day out -it surely shows you the man’s dedication and above all the courage and determination.

Johnson writes  with a tinge of regret “…whether I shall add any thing by my own writings to the reputation of English literature, must be left to time: much of my life has been lost under the pressures of disease; much has been trifled away; and much has always been spent in provision for the day that was passing over me…..“.Be assured,Dr.Johnson,that having read only this preface to the dictionary was enough to see the writer in you.Not only the preface,the writings to friends,patrons have shown the eloquence of your language.

Thanks Google for that bang-on doodle on Dr.Johnson.

I just got to see the bigger picture about Johnson.My English teachers tried their best for making the English classes count.I guess that they succeeded with atleast a few of us..

Just wondering how Johnson would feel if he gets to see some of our chats or social media hashtags/posts where we take spelling to a whole new level.Now,now,I don’t want to start sounding like Spelling Martinet….Maybe we are  moving towards the place where we started out from.Most importantly,from where  Dr.Johnson and scores of other lexicographers had brought us to where the English language is today and just telling ourselves that we sound cool.A huge relief is that thankfully people have some sense to keep it only with the social media.

P.S:This is probably a very late post(almost a month late).Thankfully,it has not become an idea that did not get time to become a full fledged post.And like every other post,let me remind you to share your thoughts about the post.And don’t stop with only the post-Give me some good book recommendations.Finally could spare some quality time for Option B.Thanks Accidental Iowan.Just hoping that the next blue moon comes sooner 😛

 

2 thoughts on “For the man who taught us to write better English

  1. This has been illuminating and inspiring! I have a vague memory of learning about Samuel Johnson in high school, but I clearly was not as impressed as you were! These snippets of his dictionary preface, though, are amazing. They show that he was a very dedicated man to his goal, and you’re right–they do reveal a great writer within the lexicographer. Oh to stay as passionately dedicated to a worthy goal as he was! (And by the way, “mellifluous”–now that’s a $100 word! Thanks for introducing me to it!)

    Liked by 2 people

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