Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings John Murray $225 In the poor London parish of St Giles's Cripplegate, near the open sewers of Moorfields and the lunatic asylum at Bedlam, lay Grubb Street, 'not so much a geographical space', writes Henry Hitchings, 'as a state of mind'. For Samuel Johnson, it summed up the perils of being a writer and where he would end up if he failed, a place 'inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems'. When the 28-year-old Johnson came to London in 1737, the printing press had made it possible for the writer to earn a living with his pen by finding an audience of paying readers, rather than relying on a patron or the play-going public. 'It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing,' he observed, calling it 'an epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper'. Johnson discovered early that praise for his writing did not put food on the table or a clean shirt on his back. It was not until 1762, with a pension of #300 bestowed on him by George III, that he would be safe from Grubb Street, and the Dr Johnson made famous by James Boswell's biography would come into his own. Hitchings examines the pre-Boswell Johnson and the book that ensured his place in history. On April 15, 1755, 250 years ago, the Dictionary of the English Language was published. This often amusing and always fascinating book tells its story. 'The authority of Johnson's work has coloured every dictionary of English that has been compiled,' writes Hitchings, be it the Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1862 and taking 67 years to complete, or Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828 that eschewed Shakespeare as a user of low language unfit for decent company. For 150 years, English was defined by Johnson, which manifests today in the US Supreme Court of all places when lawyers seek to argue the precise intention of the writers of the US Constitution. Hitchings has sought in Dr Johnson's Dictionary to define Johnson, to pin down his quintessence, much the same as the writer sought to get to the meaning of each of the 42,773 words he defines. He does a fine job evoking the London of Johnson's time, the largest city in Europe, and observes that proximity breeds familiarity, then competition, then contempt as 18th-century London became more and more crowded. Hitchings' inclusion of William Hogarth's Gin Lane (1751) captures the city as he believes Johnson saw it; what motivated him to lift up his fellow man and instil in them the pride of being English. Johnson adopts a moral tone in confronting the language, describing it as 'licentious' and 'inconstant'. His aim was to preserve 'its purity'. He also saw the dictionary as a tool for moral teaching, something that had a long tradition in Islamic culture, and sought illustrative quotations that should 'give pleasure or instruction, by conveying some elegance of language, or some precept of prudence, or piety'. There was nationalism, too, a perceived need to protect the language from a French invasion. Hitchings also posits the dictionary as 'an anthology of literature' - Johnson literally dismembered 500 books, many the jewels of English writing, to find examples of meaning. An opportunity to do something about the irregular spelling system of English was, alas, lost. Johnson even added to the problem and we are stuck with moveable and immovable, deign and disdain. We do, however, learn that the cherry was introduced to England in AD55, Alexander the Great drank from a cup that could hold 14 pints of wine, and millipedes swallowed whole are a convenient laxative.