We talk of “making discoveries” as if forming them out of clay. As if we craft discoveries from the malleable world with our own two hands. Yet, for the 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson—famous for creating the English language’s “first” dictionary—discovery is an action rather than an object: “the act of finding any thing hidden,” or else, “the act of revealing or disclosing any secret.” A previously unmapped celestial body, a new species of hummingbird, a highly efficacious vaccine: these are not discoveries that could be “made.” Rather, discovery unearths something that was there all along. We might say instead that a discoverer (whom Johnson defines as “a finder out”) makes the act that is the discovery—and suddenly we are back where we started.
That’s the thing about discoveries: they are subjective, human endeavors that go around masquerading as independent, objective truths. Current usage, which tends to swap action for object, constructs a world of discoveries patiently waiting to be found while simultaneously fashioning an ideal discoverer as its inverse: forceful and enterprising, a stereotypically masculine pioneer leaving his mark on the world. Is it any wonder that, when we say we’ve “made” a discovery, we also mean that it is ours?
In my three years helping to bring Johnson’s famous dictionary online, what I’ve learned about discovery began with the difficulty of giving up the promise of action rewarded. It ended with a realization that, when that reward feels like ownership—a discovery that is ours—learning to lose what we’ve found might be just as important as finding it in the first place.
I started getting to know Johnson in 2017, as part of the Johnson’s Dictionary Online Project: a team endeavor, led by Dr. Beth Rapp Young and based at the University of Central Florida, that has already released a searchable first edition. This is a relief because, when it comes to a verb like gloze, I can discover its meaning in a heartbeat (“To flatter; to wheedle; to insinuate; to fawn”). In my time contributing to the project, I have found hundreds of words and their meanings, but the truth is that I have lost just as many. What has become of all the words I found that I didn’t know, then knew, and have now lost by forgetting? How can one search for what one cannot name?
Partly I blame this lexicographical amnesia on method. How you go about bringing a historical dictionary online is that, first, you stop really reading the entries. You have other work to do, like adding XML tags; comparing modern transcriptions against page images of Johnson’s original; and digitally cropping each entry so as to include an original image next to each transcribed entry—before concluding that, with at least 41,684 unique words, there must be a way to automate this.
The result is that even when I would exclaim over a new-to-me word (“Did you know that ‘pulverulence’ means an ‘abundance of dust’?”), it was never in the context of actually using the word—only proofing it, rendering it, clipping it, highlighting it, making it findable. Johnson defines lexicographer—a writer of dictionaries—as “a harmless drudge.” But I have come to relate to Johnson as more of a long-distance runner: an athlete whose particular facility lies in the way he marathons forth even as it pains him.
That’s the thing about discoveries: they are subjective, human endeavors that go around masquerading as independent, objective truths.
Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is famous for being the first dictionary. But, in fact, it’s one of the first to do a bunch of things that we now think every dictionary does: like trying to incorporate all a language’s words (not just the tricky ones); individually defining words with multiple meanings (instead of lumping them together); and noting etymology—how a word evolved.
The monumental nature of Johnson’s task reflected a British response to the European academies’ grand national dictionaries, particularly France’s Dictionnaire (1694) and Italy’s Vocabolario (1612). A group of booksellers hired Johnson to produce a comparably prodigious dictionary of English. He thought it would take three years to do so, but it really took nine. The work seemed endless, and his attempts at systematicity were complicated by circumstances big and small. He had an advance, but he had to eat. He had helpers, but he had to pay them. It was messy. It was a mess.
Johnson’s final, two-volume tome is a towering achievement. But once you know what to look for, evidence of his struggles—with space, with consistency, with his own memory—is easy to discover and even easier to lose in the morass.
Over time, words change their meanings, become archaic or obsolete, because people use words differently or not at all. It is usage, not anything inherent to the word itself, that determines meaning. Since Johnson’s Dictionary records the English language as it was in 1755, many of its secrets are historical secrets: here are words that people hundreds of years ago used to know.
I leave “hundreds” unspecified, because one intriguing aspect of the Dictionary is the quotations from older texts with which it illustrates usage. For instance, here’s how Shakespeare uses rapier, a noun that Johnson defines as “a small sword used only in thrusting”: “I will turn thy falsehood to thy heart, / Where it was forged, with my rapier’s point.” The lines are from Richard II, a play composed around 1595. Johnson quotes it in order to ground his definition with an example, and the result is a 1755 definition pinned to a usage approximately 160 years older—and for a person reading this in 2022, an incredible 427 years older.
When it comes to tracing the provenance of Johnson’s literary quotations—there are approximately 115,000 of them—the thing that felt most like a discovery was catching the lexicographer in a mistake. We wanted our online dictionary to make it possible to search for all the times Johnson cites particular authors or sources. So, we needed to ask, when Johnson says these lines belong to Shakespeare, do they?
Sometimes quotations would be followed by the title of the play, including act and scene, and sometimes merely by “Sh.” Johnson likes to condense longer quotations to save space. How close is his adumbrated version to the original? These and other, similar questions motivated our investigations. We needed to make the quotations discoverable by first discovering them ourselves.
Why don’t you start checking the accuracy of all the times Johnson quotes John Milton? seemed like as good a place as any to begin. When a spreadsheet with 12,000 supposed Milton quotations arrived in my inbox, my heart sank, but my ego accepted the challenge. I hit the jackpot almost immediately. In the entry for Autumnal, Johnson quotes Milton: “Thou shalt not long / Rule in the clouds; like an autumnal star, / Or light’ning, thou shalt fall.” He gives the source: “Milt. Par. Lost, b. iv. l. 620.” A few seconds later, the internet revealed the error: this is a quotation from Paradise Regained (1671), not the more famous Paradise Lost (1667).
The problem was that the jolt this discovery gave me was not unlike the fleeting pleasure of learning a new word. More like “that’s neat” than a revelation. And, after dutifully recording the error in my spreadsheet, I forgot it. It was gone from my consciousness as though it had never existed. I knew Johnson made mistakes, but about what, precisely, was no longer my concern; I was on to the next quotation, hunting for more inaccuracies without giving this one a second thought. After I spent a number of days working through the spreadsheet, discovery became an abstract exercise—so monotonous that my only insight was the urgent necessity of helpers if this was ever going to get finished.
Sometimes, a strange thing would happen when I was checking Johnson’s quotations: a source would be unfindable, but the exact misquote, to the very letter, would appear in Google Books. Here is a discovery, I thought: later lexicographers were copying Johnson.
One example is A Dictionary of the English Language (1870), by Robert Gordon Latham, which purports to be “founded on that of Dr. Samuel Johnson.” Inside, I found the exact quotation, which had been eluding me for some time, that Johnson uses to illustrate key (as in “the parts of a musical instrument which are struck with the fingers”): “Pamela loves to handle the spinnet, and touch the keys.” Johnson’s source is “Pam.,” which Latham expands to “Richardson, Pamela.” A spinnet, or spinet, is a small harpsichord (like a piano), and although an oft-out-of-tune spinet makes a number of appearances in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), the exact phrase Johnson quotes does not. The supposed quotation seems more likely to have been written by Johnson himself, based on his recollection of the novel.
Wherein lies the discovery? In the action of finding or revealing? Or in the object found?
Tracking down the pretend Pamela quotation took an amount of intellectual energy and focus. It involved the kind of conjectural detective work that only a human brain (for the moment, at least) can perform. For, not only had student researchers begun to help with quotations research, we also had technological help: Dr. Amy Larner Giroux and her team created a “fuzzy search” to scour the internet for quotations that match those in the Dictionary.
Its efficacy is astonishing. The results estimate accuracy (up to 99 percent for popular authors like Shakespeare) and provide links to sources so they can be confirmed. And yet, the pretend Pamela quotation is so completely made up as to be unfindable by any but the most human of discoverers: a finder-out willing to imagine, speculate, and, indeed, empathize with poor Johnson.
Working by candlelight, knowing that somewhere in the two-volume colossus that is Pamela there is a spinet, but, short of rereading chapters, not being able to find it. Throwing up his hands! Then, putting pen to paper, dashing off his own note to illustrate usage before brusquely moving on to the next word.
Whatever the nature of these discoveries, fascinating windows into history though they are, they are also eminently losable. And—whether recorded by one of our brilliant research assistants or anonymously captured by the “fuzzy search”—most of these latent discoveries will not be rediscovered for some time.
One day, just the right lover of language will use our online dictionary to answer just the right question. It will point them to some inaccuracy—like the mistaking of Paradise Lost for Paradise Regained—and only then will the discovery be made once more and, also, anew. Whatever questions this future user brings to their searches, whether as a schoolteacher or scholar, paralegal or undergraduate, these will be part of their discovery.
And for me it is this, more than anything else, that underlines the importance of reflecting on discovery in its historical sense, as an action rather than an object. Because how we search helps determine what we find.
This article was commissioned by Richard Jean So.