Dr Johnson’s House in London

June 2, 2017

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:

Circular plaque on the red-brick wall of 17 Gough Square. The plaque reads:

Upstairs, a stained-glass window of Johnson overlooks the square:

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The Samuel Johnson notes: A notorious ‘curmudgeon’

May 30, 2017

I write a column on language for rare-books journal The Time Traveller, in which Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary have a recurring role. The first article looked at the semantically spectacular history of nice; the second, posted below, is on the etymology of curmudgeon and an infamous lexicographic flub.

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A Notorious ‘Curmudgeon’

In issue 1 of The Time Traveller I described the radical changes the word nice has undergone, and how this prompted resistance and criticism. Because linguistic change is inevitable, constant, and disorienting, language usage attracts its fair share of curmudgeons. It’s a marvellous word, curmudgeon: the kind that Dickens might have made into an affectionately mocking surname. Yet despite its familiarity and popularity, it hides a mystery and a certain notoriety.

We begin, as before, with Samuel Johnson, critic, occasional curmudgeon, and lexicographer extraordinaire. In his Dictionary he defined curmudgeon as ‘an avaricious churlish fellow; a miser; a niggard; a churl; a griper’. Several things stand out about this sequence.

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The linguistics of colour names

May 16, 2017

The news website Vox has produced some good videos on linguistic topics, which can be found amidst their many other clips. Its latest one looks at the vexed question of colour names and categories in different languages, and in 6½ minutes it offers a decent summary:

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Have a sky at this language

February 14, 2017

I’ve just finished reading Titanic on Trial: The Night the Titanic Sank (Bloomsbury, 2012), sub-subtitled Told Through the Testimonies of Her Passengers and Crew. It’s a sad and absorbing account, edited by Nic Compton, with about 70 ‘narrators’ plus a few outside experts (such as Ernest Shackleton) who gave evidence at the inquiries after the disaster.

It’s also of no little linguistic interest. One item that struck me was the evocative expression have a sky, meaning ‘have a look’. James Johnson, an English night watchman on the ship, reported:

I had no lifebelt then, so I went down for it after. I thought I might have made a mistake in the boat station list, and I went to look at it again. I said, ‘I will have a sky again.’

nic-compton-titanic-on-trial-the-night-the-titanic-sank-bloomsburyThe line is at #3415 on this page, where the surrounding context can be read. In his introduction, Compton refers to the idiom but changes the verb from have to take. Describing the witness testimonies, he writes:

Not only are they unfiltered by any author, but they are absolutely contemporaneous and are imbued with the character of the times – good and bad. There are wonderful turns of phrase which were once the norm but now sound impossibly poetic – such as ‘I will take a sky’, meaning ‘I will take a look’.

James Johnson was apparently English, aged 41, and his line is the only example of the expression that I found on the Titanic Inquiry Project website. It doesn’t appear in the OED. So I’m not convinced that it was once commonplace, but I’d be interested to know if any readers have heard it.

It also prompted me to look up the etymology of sky, and I was rewarded with this lovely discovery:

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The Time Traveller: a rare-books magazine

December 12, 2016

time-traveller-1-rare-books-magazine-cork-irelandAmong the projects I worked on this winter was to copyedit a new, independent Irish magazine called The Time Traveller. It comes from the bookstore of the same name, which has three outlets in the west of Ireland: Westport, County Mayo; Skibbereen, County Cork; and Cork city.

The Time Traveller’s bookshop specialises in rare books, and the magazine, a quarterly, does likewise, its topics reaching into art, philosophy, history, publishing, poetry, culture, music, education, and literature in general. As its editor Holger Smyth writes in his editorial:

There is no point in starting a shy publication that looks pretty and is full of words but has nothing to say. Would it be wise to pretend everything is fine when the whole world is on the run? This quarterly will try to shine a light on important and forgotten publications, political ideas that should have been implemented, philosophies that could have made a difference, authors who could have been honoured, voices that should have been heard.

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Rise of the Invincibles – and the ‘dribbling game’

November 28, 2016

Having grown up on the football comic Roy of the Rovers and similar strips, I was excited to hear that a friend of mine was writing his own – a comic book history of the early days of the English football league and the famous FA Cup.

Michael Barrett’s Preston North End: The Rise of the Invincibles was published this month, and I had the pleasure of doing some editing work on it. The book’s focus is on Preston North End FC, the first team to win the league and cup ‘double’, but the background is rich in period details of late-19C England: social reform, the cotton mills that inspired Dickens, and home and street life:

preston-north-end-rise-of-the-invincibles-book-practice-michael-barrett-and-david-sque

The artist is David Sque, best known for illustrating some of the original Roy of the Rovers strips, so the style and tone will have nostalgic appeal for readers of that generation. Rise of the Invincibles captures the excitement on and off the pitch as the new sport of football (‘the dribblin’ game’) develops and turns professional and its early stars become local legends.

The book also has elements of linguistic interest, not least the Lancashire dialect used here and there throughout. It’s quite prominent on this page:

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A cussed acrostic

September 4, 2016

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

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