During the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee’s recent impeachment hearings, I was surprised to hear several constitutional law scholars cite Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” for definitions of treason, misdemeanors, bribery, etc, a reference to Dr. Johnson’s 1755 dictionary of the English language.
It is not altogether uncommon to hear the name Dr. Johnson — usually in reference to some bon mot he delivered in the course of his life — but it is rare to hear anyone invoke his famous dictionary, the first great dictionary of English.
Dictionaries matter to me, even now when they have fallen out of fashion. It used to be that every high school graduate was likely to receive a copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. I have two from that moment, one that was a gift, and the other was a hand-me-down from my father, Charles Jenkinson.
The one from my father I treasure above all others. If Monty Hall came by and told me he would give me $100 for every dictionary I can put my hands on in my house with 24 hours, I could collect a thousand dollars pretty easily, but I’d be leaving at least another thousand on the table.
Why own 20 or more dictionaries, you ask? I have no ready answer, but I know that many of them are buried in boxes in the garage, hidden in bookshelves throughout the house.
I have three dictionaries within eyeshot here at my desk, two Webster’s (one larger than the other) and an excellent edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.
Why were the constitutional law scholars citing Dr. Johnson?
Well, 1755 in London is not very distant from 1787 in Philadelphia. If you are trying to ascertain what the Founding Fathers meant by the words they choose in writing the Constitution, you are going to get pretty close by consulting Johnson’s dictionary. The meaning of words changes over time, particularly when you are dealing in nuances, so consulting a dictionary that was current when the Constitution was written is a sound scholarly practice.
Those scholars would have done even better to consult that massive Oxford English Dictionary. Though it was compiled in the 19th and 20th century, it attempts to trace the changes in meaning and usage that have occurred for every word over time. I have both an electronic version of the OED, as it is known, and all 13 folio volumes in a special place in my library.
Still, if those scholars, sitting across from the Judiciary Committee, had cited the OED, it would have been less significant to historians than citing Dr. Johnson, even if it would have been more accurate and more useful as a research tool.
I’ve given lectures on dictionaries. I’ve lectured on what dictionary to buy, depending, of course, on the budget of the person who’s asking and the uses to which they intend to put the dictionary. I warn my listeners which dictionaries not to buy. Here’s the lecture in a nutshell:
If you just want to know how to spell hors d’oeuvre or hemorrhage or you just want to know the basic definition of defenestrate, you will be fine with whatever dictionary came with your computer. If you want a great basic dictionary that you won’t have to lift with a derrick, I recommend whatever is the latest Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Warning, warning: Don’t be fooled by the use of the word Webster on a dictionary. Any knucklehead can use that name. You want a dictionary created by the Merriam-Webster company. If you want a definitive dictionary of English in a single fat volume, you want Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which may be the greatest one-volume dictionary in the English language. If you are feeling a little frisky, purchase the American Heritage Dictionary, a bold new dictionary first published in 1969, the year we landed on the moon, and the year of Woodstock.
Thomas Jefferson was not fond of Dr. Johnson, who was a Tory and a monarchist (indeed, a monarchist with a hankering for the lost cause of the Stuarts). Johnson wrote a contemptuous and derogatory pamphlet against the American drive for independence. He believed that everyone in a society should know his or her place, that we need a class hierarchy, and the lower orders should accept the idea of subordination, that they should not question the legitimacy of birth, wealth, power, class and privilege. Johnson believed that this solid social hierarchy was essential to the maintenance of an orderly society — that everyone benefited, even those of the lower social orders.
In linguistic terms, Johnson was what is known as a prescriptivist. That means he believed that the English language should be kept on lock down. The language should be policed by grammarians and masters of diction, that there are hardbound rules for the correct use of language, and the English-speaking people should welcome strict enforcement of those rules.
Jefferson was what is known as a descriptivist (as most of us are now). He believed that language is how the people use it, that there can be no hard and fast rules about what a word means, how to use it correctly and when you have strayed into linguistic anarchy. Jefferson was also a revolutionary, of course. He wanted to replace the world of social subordination with a system that prized merit. He called that the natural aristocracy.
It’s a good thing Johnson and Jefferson never met. Johnson died in 1784, the year Jefferson sailed for France, but two years before he spent time in England with John and Abigail Adams. Johnson would have bullied Jefferson at a dinner party, and Jefferson would have been too shy and gracious to fight back.
Prescriptivists like Johnson want to bolt down the language and prevent it from linguistic dynamism. They regard a dictionary as a permanent and final rulebook about usage, pronunciation and a border wall between words that are acceptable for use and words trying to get into the English language that we should keep out. Descriptivist’s look on a dictionary as a snapshot of how the language happens to be used at the time of the printing but knowing that the next edition will be somewhat different. They welcome new words, including loan words from other languages and neologisms or coinages, and new ways of defining the words we already have, and they accept the fact that five editions down the road the dictionary will be quite different indeed.
This may all seem pedantic and academic to you, and perhaps it is. If you want a rough modern analogy, look at the difference between French and English. The French language enforcers work hard to keep French pure, to protect French from loan words and neologisms, to insist on proper pronunciation and usage. The French language gendarmes are particularly contemptuous of the infiltration of their language by English loan words. A few creep in, but in polite circles, most are regarded as barbarism and a threat to the sovereignty of French culture. English is the most open-bordered language in the world. That’s one reason it has such an immense vocabulary — somewhere between 500,000 and a million words, depending on how you define such things.
There is in every American community some language pedant who clears his throat when someone misuses a word or makes a grammatical mistake. I have known some of these individuals, mostly men, some women, and I have been one in a minor key at times. I generally find such people odious even when I grant their legitimacy.
So why were the constitutional experts trading quips about Johnson’s dictionary before the House Judiciary Committee. Even though former President Gerald Ford said impeachment is whatever the House of Representatives thinks it is, it is helpful, in grave moments like this, to try to ascertain what the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote of “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” What, in short, is an impeachable offense and has the current president committed one or more?
We all know the answer to that, at least in the privacy of our living rooms. I’m with constitutional scholar Allan Dershowitz. Just use the “shoe’s on the other foot” test. If Barack Obama had held up military aid to a country unless and until it agreed to dig up dirt on a political opponent, just imagine. Don’t need no dictionary for that, as really radical descriptivists would say.