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Friday, November 2, 2007

Spread the Word

I hope you have all run out and bought your copies of David Crystal's new anthology of 4000 entries from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. It seems odd to call an abridged dictionary an "anthology," but that is what we have here--Johnson's definition of the word (omitted, alas, in the present edition) definites it as "a collection of flowers, verses, or devotions," and Crystal has brought us a bouquet of the sweetest, most perfectly formed wildflowers that ever bloomed in a reference work. JoJo and I were practically fighting over it. "Did you get to 'dab' yet?" he said. "Read 'dab'!" Ahem.

To DAB. v.a. [dauber, Fr.] To strike gently with something soft or moist. A sore should never be wiped by drawing a piece of tow or rag over it, but only by dabbing it with fine lint. SHARP. A DAB. n.s. [from the verb.] 1. A small lump of any thing. 2. A blow with something moist or soft. 3. Something moist or slimy thrown upon one. 4. [In low language.] An artist; a man expert at something. This is not used in writing. 5. A kind of small flat fish. Of flat fish there are rays, flowks, dabs, plaice. CAREW.

See how good? What serious dictionary ever had so strong a voice? Wry, muscular. I love "strike gently," I love the evocatively dabbing quality of the vague and lumpy diction in the noun definition, I love the stern usage tip, and I even love that the second sample-sentence is at once so musical and so bafflingly useless. There have been other editions of Dr. Johnson's dictionary in recent years, maybe none so thoughtfully compiled (Crystal's introduction is a worthwhile read in its own right) as this one. Buy a spare; keep one copy beside the bathtub at all times and reintroduce yourself to the English language.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Dr. Johnson is also responsible for the sesquipidelian hilarity that is the greatest 30 minutes of British television ever: Black Adder III's Ink and Incapability :)