On a recent trip to London I visited 17 Gough Square, better known as Dr Johnson’s House. Samuel Johnson compiled his great Dictionary of 1755 in this tall Georgian building, and I’ve always wanted to visit. As I’m currently writing a column on the subject (ish), the timing was apt.
On my way there I passed a Furnival Street and wondered if it was named after another lexicographer – but that Furnivall has two l’s in his name, so I guess not.
The house is ‘one of a very few of its age to survive in the City of London, and the only one of Johnson’s eighteen London homes to have done so’, Henry Hitchings writes in his terrific book Defining the World (aka Dr Johnson’s Dictionary). Here’s the plaque outside:
Upstairs, a stained-glass window of Johnson overlooks the square:
The spacious garret is where Johnson worked on the Dictionary with the help of a half-dozen amanuenses (not all at the same time), who, per Hitchings, ‘were his servants, but also his companions’, and attended to some of the dictionary’s ‘more menial and mechanical aspects’. The room was reconstructed after being destroyed by fire in World War II:
This post-it art of Pac-Man across the way, seen from the garret, was probably not there in Johnson’s time:
Excuse the poor picture quality: I didn’t bring my proper camera. But I encourage any London tourists and residents interested in Johnson or his dictionary to visit the museum: a fine and fascinating place, steeped in history and atmosphere, that gives a sense of what work and life were like for Johnson during his time here.
On my way out I met an American couple talking with the receptionist about the ‘word of the day’ feature behind the desk. They had just encountered petrichor elsewhere and were very taken by it. The word was fresh in my mind from a recent appearance at Macmillan Dictionary, so I shared its etymology. (I’d just had lunch with Macmillan colleagues Michael Rundell and Kati Sule, and Michael had suggested I visit Johnson’s house, so the coincidences were beginning to pile up.) The Americans proposed petrichor as a word of the day, but house rules say it has to be a word in Johnson’s Dictionary, and petrichor didn’t arrive until two centuries later.
I’ll finish with a few more photos from London. This vibrant street art near Brick Lane caught my eye (the artist is Cosmo Sarson, I’ve since learned):
The Serpentine bridge between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park is an especially scenic spot:
A sign in Clapham struck me because of its lexical ambiguity:
As I said on Twitter, Is he behind the tree?