Samuel Johnson and the Chaos of Language
George P. Landow, Professor of English and the History of Art
In his tribute to Samuel Johnson on the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication his great dictionary, Verlyn Klinkenborg wonders
whether anyone has ever had a more dynamic or volatile sense of the language than Johnson did. We tend to remember him as an older man, grown heavy, his face weighed down as much by indolence as industry. But in April 1755 he was not yet 46. With the publication of his dictionary, he returned from his researches into the English language the way an explorer returns from the North Pole, with a sense of having seen a terrain that others can see only through his account of what he found there. Instead of a wilderness of ice, he faced what he called, in his preface to the dictionary, "the boundless chaos of a living speech." Instead of voyages into Arctic waters, he talks of "fortuitous and unguided excursions into books.
Klinkenborg, who is one of those who recognizes that neoclassical writers feared chaos even more than they treasured so-called Augustan calm, concludes:
Johnson lived in turmoil, and the sense of vigor he so often projected was, if nothing else, a way of keeping order in a world that threatened to disintegrate into disorder every day. And what was the disorder of London to the chaos of the language? "Sounds," he wrote, "are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride." Johnson published his dictionary not as the conqueror of the language but as the person who knew best how unconquerable it really is.
How does one relate the details of Johnson's prose style — the carefully balanced clauses and the combinations of repeated syntactical structures with minor variations — to Klinkenborg's astute observations on the great Cham?
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. "Johnson's Dictionary."
Last modified 3 December 2006