First Man of Letters

Interesting review of two biographies of Samuel Johnson:

… Intellectually, too, Johnson pointed toward a new sensibility. His Dictionary of the English Language (1755) marked a revolution in English letters by being descriptive rather than prescriptive: In other words, he gave up on the project of creating a dictionary that would purify the unruly language by fixing meanings and pronunciations (as the Académie Française had recently attempted across the Channel) in favor of simply describing the state of English as it was spoken at that time and had been in the past. His philosophy and achievement cleared the path for the Oxford English Dictionary begun a century later. “Language,” Johnson wrote, “is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived.” Of words, he said that “like their author, when they are not gaining strength, they are generally losing it. Though art may sometimes prolong their duration, it will rarely give them perpetuity.”

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