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Johnson on Meaning

The Great Lexicographer's Modern Approach to Meaning

by John Dudley

Beguiled as they were by the comparative method in historical linguistics, nineteenth century philologists and lexicographers were so focused on the reconstruction of morphological and semantic changes that they had little energy left to address the question of what word meaning actually is. In this sense, Johnson, for all his instinctive conservatism, was a radical thinker two hundred years ahead of his time. He addressed the central issues of lexicography, shed light on the nature of language, and illuminated our understanding in ways which we can still salute with gratitude.[1]

These words were uttered by Patrick Hanks in concluding the Johnson Society of Lichfield's Annual Lecture on 2 March 1999. They serve as a suitable prologue to these observations, which have been written as a brief personal celebration of the 250th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. Hanks's lecture was entitled Samuel Johnson and Modern Lexicography and for those interested in such things it is an invaluable resource. Johnson's massive contribution to lexicography is revealed in a masterly fashion.

I shall draw on some of Hanks's insights to make my own observations. A further prop for these observations is my belief that Johnson's approach to meaning was similar to that of Ludwig Wittgenstein. These two men lived two hundred years apart and worked with different purposes but, to my mind, they identified similar problems with word meaning. To a degree their solutions to these problems were similar. They both moved from an attempt to fix meaning — to make the meaning of all terms unambiguously clear — to a position where it was clear that, for large areas of human discourse, meaning could only be found, in many cases, by referring to the context in which a particular word is spoken or written.

Before he started out on his great undertaking Johnson's approach to his lexicography seems to have been coloured by a fashionable desire, which was prevalent in the first half of the eighteenth century, to make the English language as it were 'respectable'. The French, for example, had produced Le Dictionnaire de l'Academie Francaise in 1694 but English still full of 'wild and barbarous jargon' as Johnson first put it, had no such badge of honour. Johnson, in his Plan of an English Dictionary (1747), speaks of fixing the language:

...since one great end of this undertaking is to fix the English language.[2]

However as one reads the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) one realises that Johnson's views had changed in the years he spent compiling it. Faced with what he calls, 'the boundless chaos of living speech' he no longer concerned himself with fixing the meaning of words but with explaining them. As Hanks points out (p27H) Johnson's choice of the term 'explanation' rather than 'definition' for what he was doing is very significant. Johnson was no longer intent on looking for certainty in the fixedness of a definition: he was looking at the meanings of words as they were actually being used.

Hanks, points out that Johnson developed techniques for dealing with the dynamism of language. Many of these techniques are still in use today. A few examples are: lexical creativity (use of diminutives etc), compound words, phrasal verbs (e.g. take — on, off, in). This was the first time principles such as these had been developed and applied rigorously in English lexicography. Today they are still applied. Thus Johnson's Dictionary has a modern feel to it albeit his examples are far more lengthy than the those of modern dictionaries. For example:

Johnson (1755) (eight meanings) (Four examples in some detail):
FAIRLY. adv. [from fair] 1. Beautifully: as a city fairly situated 2. Commodiously; conveniently; suitably to any purpose or design Waiting till willing winds their sails supplyd, Within a trading town they long abide, Full fairly situate on havens side. Dryden 3 Honestly; justly; without shift, without fraud; not foully 4 There is due from the judge to the advocate some commendation and gracing where causes are fairly pleaded. Bacon 8 Completely; without any deficience.(sic) All this they fairly overcame by reason of the continual presence of their king. Spens. State of Ireland

Compact Oxford (2003) (three meanings): Fairly Adverb 1 with justice. 2 moderately. 3 actually; positively

But how did Johnson arrive at this method of dealing with meaning?

He seems to have met with very similar problems to those met by Wittgenstein although they both started from different standpoints. Johnson was concerned with the meaning of words; his approach was empirical. He went word by word as it were. Wittgenstein first approached meaning with a theory, known as the picture theory of meaning. He outlined it in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922).[3] He then applied this theory, as it were, to the world, or at least the world of language.

One finds that Johnson, in his preface, moved from the concept of fixed definitions to explanations of how a word is used. However, even this more realistic perspective produced more difficulties for Johnson to resolve:

To explain requires the use of terms less abstruse than that which is to be explained, and such terms cannot always be found; for as nothing can be proved but by supposing something intuitively known, and evident without proof, so nothing can be defined but by the use of words too plain to admit a definition. p315 [4] (Preface)

He addresses here a basic problem of meaning which is that, at some point, the explanation of what a word means is unsayable. At this point something has to be assumed or taken for granted or even pointed to. Some part of meaning seems to depend on intuition. (Or it might even depend on something innate. Johnson however never approaches the conflict between the concepts of innate ideas and empiricism.) Having noted the problem he proceeds empirically.

He describes it further:

This uncertainty of terms and commixture of ideas is well known to those who have studied philosophy with grammar; and, if I have not expressed them very clearly, it must be remembered that I am speaking of that which words are insufficient to explain. p317 (Preface)

Johnson's way round the difficulty was to exemplify the use of the words. Indeed this becomes the main theme of his preface. The mode of selection, the authors to be used, the chronology — Johnson spends many pages on these and other issues — but, quite early on, the basic method is revealed:

The solution of all difficulties, and the supply of defects, must be sought in the examples subjoined to the various senses of each word, and ranged according to the time of their authors. (P.318) (Preface)

Which is to say that in order to supply the missing dimension of meaning to the list of words in the dictionary the only way to go is to exemplify the way the word is used. This meant of course that some words would have many explanations. One is strongly reminded of a Wittgensteinian aphorism from his Tractatus.

3.3 Only propositions have sense; only in the nexus of a proposition does a name have meaning. (Tractatus)
Thus we have a very similar sentiment. Wittgenstein was also trying to fix things. In fact he was trying to tidy up philosophy; philosophical problems were to be things of the past. His picture theory of meaning, as developed in the Tractatus, was intended as the solution to the problems of word meaning. The world was pictured in words. Each word in a sentence stood for a bit of reality. The way the words related to each other reflected the way the objects in the world related to each other. There are a number of flaws in this position. Most obvious of course is the assumption that the logical form of propositions in language is isomorphic with the physical relationship of objects to each other in the real world. Wittgenstein nowhere presents arguments to support this assumption. Unfortunately the deceptively simple approach of the picture theory masks other weaknesses. Wittgenstein admitted a further difficulty towards the end of the work:

4.1 Propositions represent the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.

4.11 The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences).

4.111 Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. (The word 'philosophy' must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.) (Tractatus)

And so all sentences (propositions) except those of natural science are ruled out of court. The obvious conclusion is that all other sentences are meaningless. But of course they are not. Wittgenstein's comment on all this?

7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence (Tractatus)

And so both men had come to the conclusion that there was something about the relationship of words to meaning, of language to meaning, that resists description but which can only be exemplified.

Wittgenstein, in his later work, turned to look at language use in human discourse in Philosophical Investigations (1953)[5] but he had already commented in the Tractatus on the difficulty of using language to analyse itself. He summarised the position cogently thus:

4.121 ...What expresses itself in language we cannot express by means of language... (Tractatus)

In his own way Johnson wrestled with similar difficulties:

To interpret a language by itself is very difficult; many words cannot be explained by synonyms because the idea signified by them has not more than one appellation; nor by paraphrase, because simple ideas cannot be described. P315 (Preface)

For both men the way out of the difficulty lay in looking at the way words were actually used. As noted previously, Johnson turned to the use of examples. How did he select them? He describes his criteria in the preface. He decided, for better or worse, to select his meanings from the pantheon of English literature and from experts in the growing fields of science, engineering and industry. After setting his earliest boundary for the selection of his examples at the time of the poet Sidney (1554-1586) Johnson outlines and defends his selection of authors. He notes in passing that his selection of meanings is certainly not universal and that 'many senses have escaped observation'.

Wittgenstein reached similar conclusions to those of Johnson. At one point he writes:

43. For a large class of cases — though not all — in which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (Philosophical Investigations)

He thus points to the crucial role of the social context of the language as providing the key to word meaning. The key to meaning is the way we use language in the world.

Wittgenstein developed two inter-linked conceptions to explain the way language works. One was the notion of language games. The other was that of public forms of life. A language game is the characteristic language employed in a particular social context. These social contexts are the forms of life. Wittgenstein's examples include: giving orders and obeying them, reporting an event, play acting, making a joke, solving a problem. In other words we learn a particular way of behaving and speaking in a myriad variety of social contexts. These are the bits of meaning which defy analysis. This is why a word can have different meanings. On this basis the context supplies the cues to establish the bits of meaning that can be shown but not said.

226. What has to be accepted, the given, is — so one could say — forms of life. (Philosophical Investigations)

He elucidates the position further in the following:

241. 'So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true or what is false?' — It is what human beings say that is true and false: and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life. (Philosophical Investigations)

This is a significant advance from the picture theory. We learn words. We master the various language games. We learn how to apply different word meanings in different language games. We apply an appropriate meaning from the definitions at our disposal. Our knowledge of our language games we have the tools to interpret what is meant in the various forms of life.

In his preface to his dictionary Johnson alludes frequently to the shifting nature of language, to the dynamism of semantic change and to the hopeless lot of the wretched lexicographer but he makes a point not dissimilar in tone to that of Wittgenstein: must be remembered that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of everyone that speaks it these words are hourly shifting their relations and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary than a grove in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water. (P 316) (Preface)

And he too arrives at a very similar conclusion. The way to elucidate meaning is to see how the word is used. The best way to do this is to see how it is used in a sentence. The following quote from Johnson's Preface has a remarkable resonance with many later Wittgensteinian observations:

It is not sufficient that a word is found unless it be so combined that its meaning is apparently determined by the tract and tenor of the sentence. (p.320) (Preface)

Clearly he too thought that the meaning of a word could only be made clear by its use in the language. On this basis he developed principles to help him in his work and which proved so successful. Quite an achievement!

The general image of Samuel Johnson in the public mind, if such an entity still exists, seems to be composed elements of the bluff Englishman or a sort of academic John Bull full of wise words and argument. This image stems from some of the better known biographies such as those of Boswell and Macaulay. But the Johnson of the Dictionary of the English Language was far more than this. He was a first class thinker who identified and grappled with problems and issues surrounding word meaning which were also identified by one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century — Ludwig Wittgenstein. Johnson's solutions to these problems led him to establish some working principles in lexicography, which, as Patrick Hanks has indicated, have been used ever since.

I therefore salute the memory of this great man of Lichfield and his marvellous Dictionary of the English Language. He was far more than his own definition of a lexicographer — 'a harmless drudge' (although implicit in the phrase are the long hours of grinding work) — he was an incisive pragmatist whose acumen raised English lexicography to a new level. In concluding I therefore echo the sentiments of one of his Idler essays:

He that has improved the virtue or advanced the happiness of one fellow- creature, he that has ascertained a single moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to natural knowledge, may be contented with his own performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause.[6]

I think that the applause, which has greeted his dictionary down the years right up to the present day has been a proper response to a great achievement.


1. HANKS, PATRICK (1999) Samuel Johnson and Modern Lexicography, Transactions of the Johnson Society 1999, p39. [All further references to this work will be by page number and the letter H in the text]

2. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1747) The Plan of an English Dictionary, Electronic Text Version, professor Jack Lynch's Site p.5

3. WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1922) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , translated by PEARS, D.F. & McGUINNESS, B.F. (1961) Routledge &Kegan Paul, London and Henley [Further references by paragraph number and the word Tractatus in the text]

4. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1755) A Dictionary of the English Language — Preface in GREEN, D. (ed.) Samuel Johnson Oxford Authors, OUP (1984) Oxford and New York [All further references to this work will be by page number and the word Preface in the text]

5. WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1953) Philosophical Investigations Trans, ANSCOMBE, G.E.M.& RHEES, R. Basil Blackwell Oxford (repr 1978) [Further references will be by paragraph number and the words Philosophical Investigations in the text]

6. JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1759) The Idler, No 88, The Limitations of Human Achievement in GREEN, D. (ed.) Samuel Johnson Oxford Authors, OUP (1984) Oxford and New York

©: John Dudley 2005