Participants in a dictionary conference co-organized by Lynda Mugglestone in the year in which this book was published found a keepsake in their conference packages: a little square mat of the sort on which one puts a cup or glass, inscribed
COASTER (n.s.) He that sails timorously near the shore. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).1
Those coasters anticipated this book in two ways: they encouraged their readers to think about Johnson's sense of his own work and about the connectedness of the words which he handled.
Johnson's sense of his own work is revealed by the surprising word in his definition of coaster, which is "timorously": there were obvious ordinary reasons for many seagoing vessels in the eighteenth century to stay within sight of the coast. To be sure, the definition is motivated by the sole quotation which follows, from Dryden: "In our small skiff we must not launch too far; | We here but coasters, not discov'rers are." But the second of the two quotations in the previous entry, for the transitive verb coast, in which Addison writes of the pleasures of coasting the shore of Italy, had just told Johnson that not all coasting is timorous. He had his own reasons to see coasting as a metaphor for a poor, timorous activity, and to see himself as a discoverer on the wide seas.
Those reasons give Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words its opening, which introduces some of Johnson's imagery of himself as traveler and discoverer, and some of the imagery which precedes it in monolingual and bilingual dictionaries of English, in a sequence which runs backwards from Edward Phillips's New World of English Words of 1658 to the text by Thomas Blount in which Phillips found the image, and thence to John Florio's Worlde of Wordes of 1598. Mugglestone reflects here that the English language is, for Johnson, "variously a territory [End Page 123] to be conquered, and a terrain to be laboriously traversed" (16). The second chapter has the Plan of a Dictionary of 1747 at its center, and attends in particular to the shaping of the Plan in two preliminary manuscripts by Johnson and in the annotations on them by the Earl of Chesterfield, Johnson's old friend John Taylor of Ashbourne, and others. Images of the lexicographer's conquest of a language and his authority over it are again relevant here. The third chapter turns to Johnson's reading for the Dictionary, with an eye to his images of travel, and the fourth to questions of the exercise of prescriptive authority in the dictionary, with some excellent material on Johnson's acceptance of variation, particularly in spelling. The fifth turns to Johnson's definitions, describing the subtle interplay of description and prescription in the Dictionary, and arguing against the not-yet-extinct view of his procedure as basically dogmatic and prescriptive. (Mugglestone does not, of course, deny that Johnson sometimes condemned usage rather than reporting it neutrally, and gives some nice examples, such as his objection to Gay's image of turnips which "hide their swelling heads" in the ground: the head, Johnson felt, must be the highest part of an entity.) The sixth addresses Johnson's treatment of loanwords at different stages of naturalization, again showing his readiness to be flexible, and suggesting his own inconsistency in the treatment of a subject in which it is so hard to be consistent. A seventh chapter turns to Johnson's vision in the Dictionary of the history, and hence the unstable quality, of the English language, as opposed to the ideal of stability which appears in the Plan, pointing out, for instance, the appearance of the early Middle English chronicler Robert of Gloucester in a couple of dictionary entries as well as in the preliminary history of the language (173–74). It would have been possible to say more about the other language which Johnson did see as stable, as...