I usually nod in recognition when I see odd verbal usages in my reading—ah yes, “penultimate” for “ultimate,” an old acquaintance. But this, in Andrew O’Hagan’s review essay “The Powers of Dr. Johnson” in the Oct. 8 NYRB, is truly weird:
He used Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden at the head of an army of brilliancy; he sourced and copied over 100,000 examples for the Dictionary to best illustrate the meanings and uses of English words. In doing so he revealed a republic of letters as a rich, voluble, human culture, a summit of what men might do to civilize their days and exalt their common circumstances. The Dictionary indeed is a work of art, encapsulating an almost infinitesimal belief in the magic of poetry and prose. The book reveals nothing less than a living culture represented by marks on paper.
What on earth could he mean by “infinitesimal” here?