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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Nuts and Bolts: ignotum per ignotius II

Last week, under the heading ignotum per ignotius, I was having a minor stress about the way some dictionary definitions leave no one any the wiser.

Too late for that post I remembered dear Dr Johnson, who is, if not quite the ancestor of all writers of dictionary definitions, then surely an adored great uncle.

Statue of Johnson

Dr Johnson was the first person to write a comprehensive dictionary of the English language as it was used. Perhaps because he was writing something new, he remained keenly aware of his audience (which isn't the rule with the masterworks of very clever men). 

And always bubbling away was a fine relish for sending himself up:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

He also found himself much amused by the idea that he, as the writer of a dictionary, should be the fount of all knowledge: 
Pastern: The knee of a horse.

(The pastern is actually part of a horse's foot. When a lady asked Johnson why he'd defined it as the knee, he replied, with breathtaking candour:  'Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.')

Not only was Dr Johnson fully aware of his own ignorance, but he was keenly aware of ignotum per ignotius, too. Here's his mischievous definition of network:

Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

And just in case a reader wasn't familiar with the word reticulated:

Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.

Interstitial vacuities...who could fail to love a man who step aside from his serious work to come up with something like that?

Word To Use Today: reticulated. It comes from the Late Latin rēticulātus, made like a net.
The definitions quoted are from the first edition (1755) of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language.

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