Saturday, September 12, 2009

Samuel Johnson: Entrepreneurial Genius

This month marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the greatest British writer of the second half of the 18th century, and the Wall Street Journal featured two articles on him yesterday:

1. "On the Quest for Happiness" and

2. "Samuel Johnson and the Virtue of Capitalism"

In addition to remembering him as a great writer, we should remember him as an entrepreneurial genius, for his work to single-handedly produce the first English language dictionary in 1755 after "only" seven years of work. In contrast, the first French dictionary was completed in 1694 after 55 years of work by the 40-member French Academy (they spent six years just on the letter G).

As this Freeman article "A Tale of Two Dictionaries" suggests:

Yes, Samuel Johnson was a genius, but the French Academy also had its share of geniuses; even if we were to make the wild assumption that Samuel Johnson had the mental powers of ten Academicians, Johnson would still have been outnumbered by four to one; so surely genius alone cannot explain the vast anomaly. I suggest that much of the contrast can be explained by the ineluctable differences inherent in a collective, government-sponsored effort and in one that is individual and profit-making (emphais added).

Update: Samuel Johnson might have also had four or five times more English words to catalog than the French, making his solo effort even more impressive.

The statistics of English are astonishing. Of all the world's languages (which now number some 2,700), it is arguably the richest in vocabulary. The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words; and a further half-million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued. According to traditional estimates, neighboring German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000.


At 9/12/2009 6:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The romance languages seem a bit wordy. In English you'd say "He's a prick". Romance languages are more like "He is a body part used by men to evacuate collected toxins from the blood". With the complexity of the language, the excess of red wine, and the generous vacation schedule, I'm amazed the French got it done in 55 years. OK, I'm just being silly.

At 9/12/2009 9:05 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This is a great story about individual effort and the culture that encourages it. Bravo!!

At 9/12/2009 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ralph, we Americans fought the revolutionary war to end the thinking of the English. I'm sure that Samuel Johnson got where he did under the favor of the king. I'd rather not have to be on Obama's "good" list to do what I want.

At 9/13/2009 8:52 AM, Anonymous LoneSnark said...

Is the vocabulary bloat due to traditional tolerance of English speakers towards slang and dialect proliferation?


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