Thursday, 22 September 2011

Preserving the Word by Miriam Halahmy

I have always owned a dictionary, from the little alphabet beginner books as a very young child right through to the Oxford tomes of my university years.

 I also like to collect dictionaries and so I have my son’s huge German dictionary and my Harraps shorter French which took me through a year in France, The Oxford Dictionary of new words which my brother bought me for my 40th, as well as Spanish and modern Hebrew dictionaries, etc. etc.

I take it for granted that I can find any word, in any language, somewhere in a book. And in these so modern of times, somewhere on the Net too. But of course it wasn't always like that.
Until Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary, which was the first to contain definitions  - albeit rather whimsical at times – words floated around unhinged, unboundaried, unrecorded in an accessible and agreed manner.
I just can’t imagine going through life without a dictionary. But even more remarkable, I now cannot understand why it took me until this summer to visit the home of the man who taught us how to preserve the very foundation of the writer – words.

If you haven’t visited Samuel Johnson’s house  you are in for a veritable treat. Situated behind Fleet Street, in a beautifully preserved 18th century square, the first thing you see is the statue of Hodge, Johnson’s beloved cat. Take a good camera (which I didn’t, so my photos are from my phone) because you will want to snap and snap.

Entering Johnson’s house is like entering another world. It is so homely, so beautifully preserved, with so many amazing features. Like this custom made chain for the front door to prevent London rioters breaking in. Sound familiar?

I went with the writer Sue Hyams, who writes historical children's fiction and is also Membership Secretary for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
Sue is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about this period in history. She even googled a complete Johnson dictionary and suggested we bought it between us - for around £1500.00. (Crikey!)

Here are some original copies of the dictionary - talk about massive undertaking!!

The whole house has such a warm, lived in atmosphere and of course Johnson had a reputation of mixing with all sorts and bringing people to live with him. But for writers and all lovers of words, the greatest joy is to go up to the room where Johnson wrote his dictionary. Here I am sitting at the actual table he worked at. Apparantly he had a whole row of tables at the other end of the room where scribes stood and laboriously copied out the dictionary for him. And everyone used quill pens!! Put that in your laptop and grind it!
Johnson's house is now top of my list to take visitors to London to see and I do hope you get round to visiting one day.

What is your earliest memory of a dictionary?


Rebecca Brown said...

Like you I've always had a dictionary of some form. I had a bright blue primary school one which I saw a copy of in a charity shop lately and thumbing through it immediately took me back about twenty years. I also studied French & Spanish and though this was about 12 years ago I can't being myself to get rid of them. My latest 'thing' is Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable which is just a treasure trove.
Where would we be without dictionaries eh? Thank you for the lovely description of Johnson's house, I really hope I get to go!

adele said...

My favourite dictionary of all is Dr Seuss's Beginner Book Dictionary which was loved to bits by both our daughters and is now, very patched up with sellotape, residing on the bookshelf of the youngest grandchild. Brilliant book in every way and still in print and I recommend it without reserve!
My dad was a big fan of Dr Johnson and very proud that they went to the same college, as though that kind of made them best buddies!

catdownunder said...

My father had a Shorter Oxford and, from the time I could read, he would help me look at words in that. Of course he did most of it first of all but he gradually trained me to take over.
I probably own more dictionaries than most people - and in more languages - because my job depends on it. I also have specialist technical dictionaries, especially in area like medicine and engineering. (No I am not a doctor nor an engineer!) I find dictionaries fascinating!

Miriam Halahmy said...

I love all your memories about well loved dictionaries, I remember as a kid just reading through the dictionary and loving all the definitions.

Leslie Wilson said...

We do owe Dr Johnson a lot, though somehow I've always had a sense that the Blackadder portrayal was a weeny bit accurate. He did make some comments that I don't particularly like, like his famed one about a woman preaching (she was a Quaker) being like a dog walking on its hind legs. One doesn't wonder if it's done well, just that it's done at all. Wasn't that it? And yet - well, I always think an author should be separated from their work.
I'm embarrassed to say that I have no earliest memory of a dictionary! They only hove into my notice when I started to use them in the 6th form. They can be tricky, though, especially when writing a foreign language..

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Lovely to hear your voice Miriam. I love Dr Johnson's House too and our school visits it every year. Year 4 are going next week. Agree about the lovely warm welcome you get from the Education Dept. must come back and visit ( and sing) for us again!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Forgot to say that my most recent purchase was A Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James Hall.

Savita Kalhan said...

When I was very young, we lived next door to a wonderful lady, widowed in the second world war. She lived alone, but she had the most amazing collection of books, which she never minded lending out. One of those books was an encyclopeadic dictionary, which was too big to be borrowed, but we were allowed to go over and use it whenever she was home. Plus she always gave us mint humbugs. Good memories. Lovely post, Miriam. Thanks.

John said...

I'm lucky enough to have visited both Johnson's London house and the house of his birth, which still overlooks Lichfield market square and is also a museum. Both experiences were quite a while ago, you've inspired a revisit to both!