A Johnsonian nightmare

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  • Post published:September 13, 2010
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At the Johnson seminar on July 24, I read people a picture of Johnson through the eyes of Fanny Burney. She noted his likes and dislikes; how he despised the Whigs and their policies, how loyal he was to Oxford University and how derisive of Cambridge men; his poor opinion of the Scots, and so on. So you can imagine how much I enjoyed the anecdote I found in Simon Winchester’s book The Meaning of Everything which I have just finished reading.

The book tells the story of the publication of the huge Oxford English Dictionary, and the years of  labour by James Murray and his team to bring it into existence.  A skilled amateur philologist, Murray was the son of a linen draper, a lowland Scot and a Calvinist.  He claimed to have had a dream that illustrated Samuel Johnson’s likely reaction to Murray’s appointment in 1879 as the editor of the Dictionary.

In his dream, Boswell says to Johnson:  “What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years’ time a bigger and better dictionary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?”   Johnson merely grunted.  “A Dissenter?”  Johnson shifted a little uneasily in his chair.  “A Scotsman?”  Johnson started, and began to speak:  “Sir…”  But Boswell persisted.  “And that the University of Oxford would publish it.”

“Sir,” roared Johnson, unable to contain himself.  “In order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent.”