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Lexicography and Biography in the Preface to Johnson's Dictionary

Leo Braudy
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Vol. 10, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Summer, 1970), pp. 551-556
Published by: Rice University
DOI: 10.2307/449794
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/449794
Page Count: 6
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Lexicography and Biography in the Preface to Johnson's Dictionary
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Abstract

The biographer and the linguistic historian dismantle Johnson's Preface according to their individual notions of what is most important. But Johnson's fusion of his linguistic interests with an autobiographical account of his difficulties in making the Dictionary is not merely gratuitous. The need to fix the language—Johnson's so-called "linguistic authoritarianism"—is closely bound to his increasingly acute sense of human mortality and fallibility. In Johnson's version of the poet's claim to bestow immortality through verse, it is language itself that may be the one human creation that can outlast the transience of all else that is human. Through the words that it defines and the language that it orders, the mind can achieve an immortality that its human nature otherwise denies. It is Johnson's double sense of the creative authority of the Dictionary and the human weakness of its creator that gives his Preface its compelling power.

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