The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (which I highly recommend you visit if you’re ever in New Haven, which, incidentally, is a much nicer city than some people think) has produced a wonderful lexicographical blog called Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary:

Welcome to Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, a word-a-day dictionary from Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (London: Printed by W. Strahan for J. and P. Knapton, [1755]), one of the first dictionaries to document the daily working life of the English language.

In celebration of the three hundredth anniversary of Johnson’s birth in 1709, a definition from the first edition of the dictionary will be posted each day for readers’ lexiconic delight, beginning on January 1, 2009. Words will be taken from the annotated proof copy of the first edition, extra-illustrated with Johnson’s and his helpers’ manuscript corrections, which is held in the collections of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

They’re also going to be “offering an exhibition on the writing of Boswell’s Life of Johnson in July – September, 2009, drawing on the Beinecke’s Boswell Family Papers collection. As a contribution to the tercentenary festivities, and in support of scholarship on Johnson and Boswell, the Beinecke will be scanning the entire James Boswell segment of the Boswell Family Papers and making the collection available in its Digital Images and Collections.” Now, that’s the way to share your rich holdings with the public! (N.b.: They call it “a word-a-day dictionary,” but it’s arranged in reverse chronological order and allows comments, so I say it’s a blog.) Thanks for the link, Paul!


  1. Looking at the Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary blog, what strikes me is the curious use of apostrophe-shaped stress markers. Nowadays, if we use such a marker we put it either before or after the accented syllable (both conventions are in use) but it seems Dr. Johnson put them in the middle of the accented syllable, which looks weird and unhelpful to me. (Either that or he pronounced “abacke” and “abroad” with three syllables, but my crude understanding of English phonological history makes me doubt that very much.)
    Is there an interesting historical point to be made from this observation?

  2. Conrad, if he’s back, should click on your link to Paul’s site, bibliodyssey. There are some interesting images and also some useful graphic links, I thought.

  3. When I was a student the Beinecke was the best example an architect could use of the crassness of late-modern (mostly 1960s) architecture. It provided loads of examples of how not to do things: how a building should meet the ground was one ‘mistake’, I remember (the Beinecke appears to hover, on pylons). Designed by the almost mythically unpleasant architect Gordon Bunshaft, of SOM, it was contrasted with Louis Kahn’s Mellon Center of British Art (of nearly 20 years later), which is also at Yale: sort of the other (‘poetic’) end of the modernist spectrum at that time (25-30 years ago). For thirty-odd years nobody would have dreamt of repeating Yale’s mistake (Bunshaft was way beyond redemption).
    Now it is back in fashion, I think. It certainly looks better to me. The marble panels of the facade are translucent (they glow, showing the striations in the stone, and let some light into the central space). It will never be as good as Louis Kahn’s museum, though.

  4. Yes, I think the Beinecke is beautiful; I dragged my wife there so she could experience the subdued wash of the light percolating through those walls. And who could object to a building appearing to hover? Are their souls irremediably earthbound??

  5. He may have been trying for an acute accent, Adrian; cf. the apostrophe in English in Irish names like O’Leary, O’Gorman, where the Irish would be Ó Laoghaire or Ó Gorman.

  6. The most postmodern of my teachers was Bob Stern, who is now Dean of Yale Architecture School. I think they (ok, we) thought hovering was a trivial and casual way for an important public building to meet the ground. They would have preferred a heavy stone base, preferably one that mimicked Yale’s gothic-revival buildings. Some of the most blatent and successful hovering was done by Mies van der Rohe’s influential Farnsworth House, which was another building disliked by postmodernists.

  7. Mies was, of course, also the architect of Crown Hall, at IIT (note hovering podium on grand stair).

  8. So the walls are bare stone?
    No insulation whatsoever?

  9. Nathan Bailey marked stress that way (acute accent on the vowel). Based on a quick check in GB, he switched between 1724 and 1731. I’m sure there is a real study of this history, maybe in the International Journal of Lexicography.

  10. The Beinecke has two shells — the outermost shell is thin stone, uninsulated, but the inner shell, containing the stacks, is glass. One purpose is to control temperature and humidity within the inner shell, so I imagine it’s reasonably insulated. The space between is not for working, but transitional, a kind of wraparound vestibule, so it’s reasonable to let it get cold.
    The dictionary blog has a form for comments, but it seems to ignore them.

  11. Now that we speak of Johnson, I have a particular request to put to LH’s salon of cognoscenti. Twenty-seven years ago I was told the following anecdote:

    At a fashionable dinner party, Johnson took into his mouth a potato that was too hot. Realizing his mistake, he expelled the offending vegetable with such force that, according to an eyewitness, it shot across
    the room “like a ball from a cannon.” The company was stunned to silence. As they stared into their plates, Johnson turned to the man next to him, who happened to be the Bishop of London, and said, in perfectly normal conversational tones:
    “Sir, a foolish man would have swallowed it.”

    That version is from the web, where it is found here and there without any indication of its provenance. It is not from Boswell; and a Google book search returns nothing.
    Before I resort to interrogating “foreign” bloggers, does anyone here know the source of this Johnsonian gem?

  12. Good thing they’re including the images too — I see at least one transcription error already (in the “Abroad” entry)…

  13. Noetica, could that anecdote be an embellishment of the one in Northcote’s Reynolds?

  14. Noetica:
    You’re absolutely sure it’s not in the Life? I remember reading the incident over 40 years ago – but I don’t remember no bishop. The breathlessness of “according to an eyewitness” seems anachronistic. Your “version” was possibly compiled by one of our contemporaries, someone of the American persuasion.
    Anyway, it may have been that Mrs. Thrale. She and Boswell vied for Johnson anecdotes to titillate the paying public. I seem to recall that Boswell was shocked and disgusted at the account.

  15. Well, I contradict myself, without being large (not very, anyway) or containing multitudes.
    First I suggest the anecdote is in the Life, then I say Boswell was shocked at it. It’s all so long ago … I read a fat paperback edition of the Life in the 60’s. It was crawling with footnotes and other editorial apparatus. That’s how I know about that Mrs. Thrale. I figured the incident must be related in (that edition of) the Life, since I certainly haven’t read Mrs. T.

  16. MMcM:
    No, it is not an embellishment of the anecdote you point us to: though that is a worthy one, it lacks the Johnsonian élan. I am sure that sufficient detail was given when I heard the thing from a colleague, since deceased, to corroborate the version I cite above. If the anecdote were a radical distortion of the Reynolds, it would have to be a printed distortion that appeared at least twenty-seven years ago.
    I have searched a file of the Life assiduously, and find therein no spattered vestige of potato, nor yet of any like tuber, root, or – to stray further from our initial supposition – cauliflower. Nor any manner of bean that might notionally fill the vegetocaustical role. The only potatoes per se in Boswell make their appearance as follows:

    BOSWELL. “Good living, I suppose, makes the Londoners strong.” JOHNSON. “Why, Sir, I don’t know that it does. Our chairmen from Ireland, who are as strong men as any, have been brought up upon potatoes. Quantity makes up for quality.”

    And alas, our lumbering Urlexicographer invokes the image of a carrot but once:

    “Painting (said he,) consumes labour not disproportionate to its effect; but a fellow will hack half a year at a block of marble to make something in stone that hardly resembles a man. The value of statuary is owing to its difficulty. You would not value the finest head cut upon a carrot.”

    One could wish for more: and not a parsnip in prospect. Cabbages, yes:

    [footnote concerning Dr Grainger’s “The Sugar-Cane, a Poem”] for, he exclaimed, “What could he make of a sugar-cane? One might as well write the ‘Parsley-bed, a Poem;’ or ‘The Cabbage-garden, a Poem.” BOSWELL. “You must then pickle your cabbage with the sal atticum.” JOHNSON. “You know there is already ‘The Hop-Garden, a Poem:’ and, I think, one could say a great deal about cabbage. The poem might begin with the advantages of civilised society over a rude state, exemplified by the Scotch, who had no cabbages till Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers introduced them; and one might thus shew how arts are propagated by conquest, as they were by the Roman arms.”

    Entertained as we are by such divertissements, we pine still for the cenacular missile of legend.

  17. Here’s something that might put you on the right track. Adam Sisman, in his book, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task says of Sir John Hawkins’ early life of Johnson,

    Many of the descriptions in Hawkins’ book which so dismayed readers — for example, of Johnson’s disgusting eating habits or or his slovenly style of dress — would find their equivalents in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But by then their sting had been drawn.

    The trouble is Sir John Hawkins, as well as being the magistrate friend of Johnson, is also the name of the man who is supposed to have introduced the potato to England in the sixteenth century, so it’s hard to google.

  18. From here:

    “No one knows that, mistress.” He now took the cup and, it seemed to Hetty that he poured the whole lot into his mouth. But the next instant he spat it out, gasping a furious: “It’s much too hot, madam!” And all over the mulberry carpet went the tea. Hetty stifled an exclamation of dismay. “Some fools would have swallowed that,” he said. “Yes,” said Hetty, feebly, “I suppose they would.” She gave him another cup of tea, and added plenty of cream, and went to the cabinet where, in a drawer, a duster was kept. Blowing on the hot liquid, Johnson watched her clean up the over the rim of the cup. “Well, go on, go on!” he said impatiently.

  19. From Brewer’s Famous Quotations, by Nigel Rees:

    6 Madam, a fool would have swallowed that.

    To his shocked companion after spitting out a hot potato at dinner. Untraced and also ascribed to Thomas Carlyle, Winston Churchill and others. In The ‘Quote … Unquote’ Newsletter (July 1996) Leonard Miall, the BBC’s first postwar Washington correspondent, recalled attending a press conference at the State Department when the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, was asked a very cleverly loaded question. ‘None of us could imagine how the Secretary of State could answer it without getting himself into trouble. Acheson stroked his guardsman’s moustache for a moment and then replied, “My late law partner, Judge Covington, once attended an oyster roast on the Eastern shore of Maryland. He was given a very hot oyster which he immediately spat on to the floor, remarking, ‘A bigger damn fool would have swallowed that one.'” There were no supplementaries.’

  20. Okay, now that it’s in canonical form, searching is more fruitful:
    The Knife and Fork for 1849.
    Notes and Queries for 1906, with only a more general suggestion for reply, namely here.
    Brewer’s Famous Quotations says untraced and also ascribed to Thomas Carlyle and Winston Churchill.

  21. (Post crossed with LH’s in preview.)

  22. Brewer’s Famous Quotations: 5000 Quotations and the Stories Behind Them was published by Sterling Publishing Company in 2006; if the quote was still “untraced” then, I think it’s safe to call it apocryphal.

  23. Heh. And I didn’t see the diligent MMcM’s two comments before leaving mine.

  24. Trying to imagine life in Scotland without even cabbages stuns me. How could a life be so poor that it might be enriched by cabbages? They must have been competing with the Four Yorkshiremen.

  25. Trying to imagine life in Scotland without even cabbages stuns me. How could a life be so poor that it might be enriched by cabbages? They must have been competing with the Four Yorkshiremen.

  26. So this be merely a thing of urbane legend?! C’mon, folks, with a little constructivist gumption we can save the appearances. Think memory stick from Men in Black.
    Language, if you deleted this comment sequence, the world would be a better place. If you don’t tell, I won’t.

  27. 1837.

  28. 1851 variant: “a fool would have burnt his mouth.”
    1936 N & Q:

    I was told this saying in the following terms some forty years ago. Dr. Johnson, who ate greedily, once filled his mouth with a great helping of meat and, finding it much too hot, immediately spat it out. A lady next to him remonstrated on this breach of manners. He replied, “Madam, a fool would have burnt his mouth.” The story is not in ‘Boswell ‘ or Mrs. Piozzi, etc., and the editor of Birkbeck Hill’s ‘Life’ — Mr. L. F. Powell — tells us that he has often heard it but considers it apochryphal.

  29. scarabaeus says

    we is wot we eat???
    Man is the only animal that can process any form of life to make the brain tick.
    ’tis why we have our daily bread.
    When carrots mixed with spuds from the Andes, spiced with stuff from Java, and washed down with soaked leaves from China or ground up nuts from Aden dunked in boiling waste water of the Thames/Sane [sic] then the West Europe made progress in conquering the world.
    Thus DR Johnson was able create his wit.

  30. You have omitted the important cabbage.

  31. You have omitted the important cabbage.

  32. Not that they have much to do with Scotland, but ornamental cabbages are very pretty. More important to some is the question ‘where would we be without sauerkraut?’. Choucroute from Alsace is the staple of the Brasserie Lipp in Paris, postwar hangout of French intellectuals. In fact you can wave bye-bye to Jean-Paul and Simone with no cabbage in Paris (his mother was from Alsace — his mother was also was a cousin of Albert Schweitzer, apparently). See what happens when you mess with nature, Emerson? You think you’re getting rid of a steamed vegetable, but by doing so you’re changing the course of continental philosophy.

  33. IMPORTANT Glenn Miller Warning! For your own safety, turn down the volume control before you click on the Brasserie Lipp link.

  34. Choucroute leads to philosophy via the bowels. Being carminative and laxative, it helps you get things out of one system and into the other one.
    Soak to rinse out some of the Milchsäure, add some brown sugar, cream and saffron, and put it in the blender.

  35. Comments seem to be working now. They may have been holding them for moderation, which makes sense.

  36. Huh?

  37. Dear fellow LHards, thank you so much for the potatic clews. It now seems that the anecdote is truly about Johnson himself, though the details are forever obscured in the murk of ancient hearsay.
    In my excited haste earlier I misread the Reynolds piece, but now that I collate it with the others it all makes a sort of sense.
    I offer this by way of reward, from Boswell’s long quotation of what he calls Langton’s “Johnsoniana” (Langton’s recollections of conversation in Johnson’s presence):

    “Talking of the minuteness with which people will record the sayings of eminent persons, a story was told, that when Pope was on a visit to Spence at Oxford, as they looked from the window they saw a gentleman Commoner, who was just come in from riding, amusing himself with
    whipping at a post. Pope took occasion to say, ‘That young gentleman seems to have little to do.’ Mr. Beauclerk observed, ‘Then, to be sure,
    Spence turned round and wrote that down;’ and went on to say to Dr. Johnson, ‘Pope, Sir, would have said the same of you, if he had seen you distilling.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, if Pope had told me of my distilling, I would have told him of his grotto.’ “

    I sometimes reflect upon that curious chain of causation: a young gentleman with little to do, Pope, Spence, Beauclerk, Langton, Johnson, Boswell, Noetica, and now you. I idly fancy that this post might be answered, and then the answer cited in other blogs, and then mentioned by some websurfing Thuringian to her husband. Ah, to think of a casual crack of the whip resounding through posterity! Like the dust of Alexander stopping a bunghole.

  38. Huh?
    I was responding to Vance Maverick’s comment above:
    The dictionary blog has a form for comments, but it seems to ignore them.

  39. I think that Noetica is insinuating that we are idling away our time at this essential blog. Probably he has not been told how important a role we play in defending the motherland against [something or another bad].

  40. I think that Noetica is insinuating that we are idling away our time at this essential blog. Probably he has not been told how important a role we play in defending the motherland against [something or another bad].

  41. No John Emerson. No such insinuation. If it were so, I would be among the worst offenders.

  42. LHards
    The Weblog Awards voting is heating up and various political bloggers are now thinking of eeeevil names to call the readers if their competitors’ blogs, while the competitors gleefully adopt those evilest of names with pride. It occurred to me to wonder what LH readers might be called, and I briefly thought of Hatters. Then I shuddered as I pictured an influx of rabble here in this serene pocket of teh Interwebs. I sincerely hope none of the Hattites (?) has nominated LH for anything.

  43. Noetica is a “he”? The -a ending fooled me.

  44. Nijma:
    ”Noetica” is a Greek neuter plural: νοητικά, meaning “things of the intellect”, just as φυσικά is a neuter plural meaning “things of nature” (and therefore “physics”). Don’t worry; it fools everyone – not that I ever intended it to.
    Your own name is similarly indeterminate, may I say.

  45. Thanks, now I understand. I thought you were talking about your own Comments and I was interested in this new, mysterious, unseen ‘they’ who moderate them — they seem to do a good job of staying in the background.

  46. AJP Crown (Mrs) says

    I admit I’d often wondered if Noetica was a woman. I had always assumed Nijma was a man until she compared herself to Lauren Bacall rather than to Humphrey Bogart.

  47. Too funny. Something I wrote was once picked up by some international section of a news service and they referred to me as a “Jordanian woman”. They had Arabic names and could read the gender from my name–in Arabic Nijma is always female. I was flattered that they thought I was Arab–technically it’s true enough, since by the custom, if you live with a people and eat their salt (or is it bread) for 40 days, you become one of them. More about “Nijma” in my URL. I just updated it to include gender.
    I briefly took a male blogging name after I was recognized in real life, a name change being suggested by a moderator. The same moderator then included me in a list of commenters who were “real men” in a knock-down argument with some fundamentalist about manhood. I had no idea manhood was so easy…or so boring.
    If you are into Greek, Noetica, I have heard that the Greek (?) word for holy spirit is technically feminine plural but I have no idea how to relate that to the topic of the thread.

  48. I’m not at all like Lauren Bacall–she’s eighty something years old. I’m thirty-nine. -ish. Roughly. The same age as Kron.
    Good heavens Kron, why would I be a guy?

  49. I’m thirty-nine. -ish. Roughly.
    So are we all.

  50. I have heard that the Greek (?) word for holy spirit is technically feminine plural
    You must be thinking of another language: the Greek for (the) holy spirit is (to) hagion pneuma (neut. sg.), though it became masc. when adopted by Coptic as (pe)pneuma etouaab.

  51. AJP Crown (Mrs) says

    I’m thirty-nine. -ish. Roughly. The same age as Kron.
    You’re doing it backwards, Nidge. The point is to look YOUNGER than you are, not older. If you’re really about 55 you should tell people you’re 70. They will (probably) think you look fabulous for your age– just like I say I’m 55 when I’m really 39 (b. June ’69).
    why would I be a guy?
    You’re asking the wrong person, I just accept the way I am. If you have unanswered questions about changing sex, this is the wrong blog for you.

  52. On the other hand, if you have unanswered questions about nominal gender, this is the blog for you!

  53. Mrs. Krøøn was the one who changed my sex. A fellow (?) Gemini; no wonder.

  54. Siganus Sutor says

    I’m thirty-nine. -ish. Roughly.
    So are we all.

    I was born during l’année érotique, and I eat all my potatoes.

  55. AJP Crown (Mrs) says

    Sig is a very good-looking young man. I’ve seen his picture.

  56. 1969: l’année érotique
    What’s this about potatoes?

  57. Noetica:
    I just picked up your post about it being Johnson after all who spewed the spud.

    It now seems that the anecdote is truly about Johnson himself, though the details are forever obscured in the murk of ancient hearsay.

    Is this related in the Life, or where? If it’s “truly” so, what’s the “murk”? In your post, you seem to rush onto the stage, make mysterious remarks while madly twirling your seven veils, then rush off again. I really would like to know.

  58. Back to the Beinecke–there are other “floating” libraries that are good for keeping out of the rain in Illinois and Minnesota.
    At first glance the interior of the Beinecke looks like a secure place where the people looking at books would be very visible and safe from perverts and such. But look again at the glass that goes all the way to the floor. This is very creepy. Ever been inside a building with glass instead of walls on the exterior? Or worse yet, a rest room where you have to inch past an eighty floor drop right at your feet in order to get to the toilet? (there’s one in Chicago–I forget if it’s at the top of the Sears building or the Hancock Tower) There is a special place in Architects’ Hell for people who design such things–right next to the ones who don’t put in enough ladies’ lavatories.

  59. Grumbleby, the murk is what obscures the precise details. But if we put together the evidence that people have come up with here, no source has been found that attributes an utterance like “a fool would have swallowed it” to anyone earlier than Johnson. No, it is not in the Life. So what? In William White’s Notes and Queries we have these two versions, attributed directly to Johnson: “Madam, a fool would have swallowed it”; “Madam, a fool would have burnt his mouth”. In The Knife and Fork for 1849 (by various) we have this:

    …dining at the royal table, he cast back a hot mouthful into his plate, saying, “A fool would have swallowed it.”

    Now, it is possible to find similar attributions to less illustrious figures much later (like someone’s uncle at a barbecue); but we now have several attributions to Johnson, and none to anyone earlier. That convergence of evidence, corroborated by what we know of Johnson’s social habits and his turn of phrase, is enough to warrant the conclusion I have now drawn. Not given apodeictically: what in the domain of human affairs ever is? It is still possible that stronger evidence will be uncovered; but Cartesian hyperbolic doubt will always be possible.
    And if you don’t like the dance, stay at home with Mamma. Here we whirl exuberantly.

  60. Grumbleby, the original question and Noetica’s link to the quotation is further up in the thread at January 5, 2009 04:04 PM

  61. Noetica:
    I do so appreciate your stopping long enough to explain – but whirl on as you will. Giddiness is not gender-proprietary, I have to agree with you there. As for Mamma – thanks, but no thanks. I don’t hold with wimmin, not even that one. Fairness compels me to admit that the other half is no better in principle, so I also agree with Nijma’s take (“I had no idea manhood was so easy…or so boring..”). But practice is all. It might help you to get your entrechats under control.

  62. Spare us your obsession with control, Grumbleby, and your discomfort with manifest virtuosity. Here we are creative according to our own tastes.

  63. I understand Grumblby’s remarks about hats, but I don’t understand the objections here. I thought it was a rather fun thread.

  64. Noetica, I really did just want to understand. Sorry for being so bitchy about it – there I excel sometimes, I fear.

  65. You are forgiven, Grumbleby. Don’t worry: you’ll get the hang of things here soon enough. Several of us twirl the language like deranged dervishes; it all seems to be part of the brief, but sometimes it does make a thread hard to follow. The curate’s chaos – delicious in parts. Thing is, different bits appeal to different LHards. Welcome to life as we know it.

  66. What hideous buildings, Nidge, they make the Beinecke look all warm and cuddly.

  67. I rather like the red one in Minnesota, but maybe it’s just the memories. That’s where I did practice teaching for ESL, among other things.
    But “Nidge”? First you change my sex, then you change my name? Pretty cocky, Krфn. Or maybe .ﻛﺮﻭﻦ

  68. AJP Crown (Mrs) says

    Nidge, You’re so much older than me, so maybe you’ve forgotten this. When I was a child, the more someone protested their nickname the more they got called by it.

  69. I’m certainly not a child any more, KrØØØn,…oh, and I have had to start calling myself Danish since you cast aspersions on my Norwegianality.
    My mother is also 39. When I turned 40 this became awkward for both of us, and we had to have a talk. So at family gatherings I am now officially 29, and she has remained 39, since she had it first.

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