Dr. Samuel Johnson’s House

Before this term started, I visited Dr. Samuel Johnson’s house at Gough Square in London. The house has been preserved as a small museum. One can walk through all the rooms, read about the events and people in his life, and about the making of his famous dictionary. A facsimile of the first edition is in his library and can be browsed. At Gough Square itself, right across his house, there is even a statue of his favorite cat, Hodge, with his famous quote about London inscribed on the plinth—

Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

Even though the definitions in the dictionary are usually precise, some are peculiar. Johnson, it seems, gave himself the liberty of being humorous every now and then. For instance, he defines oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, and a lexicographer as “A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge”.

When I had visited the museum, I was contemplating doing my dissertation about dictionaries and the methods used for sorting of word-lists in them. That plan didn’t quite work out, but it led to some interesting days of reading. Simon Winchester’s thoroughly enjoyable book, The meaning of everything: the story of the Oxford English Dictionary is still on my bedside table!

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