‘Genealogy of sentiments’

Role 3 of quotations: to illustrate a ‘genealogy of sentiments’

By the time Johnson came to write his Preface in 1755, after having completed his dictionary, he had found that his original intention ‘that every quotation should be useful to some other end than the illustration of a word’ (Johnson 2015: 93), had had to be jettisoned for reasons of space. Nevertheless, he had not been altogether ruthless in his pruning, and had

sometimes, though rarely, yielded to the temptation of exhibiting a genealogy of sentiments, by shewing how one authour copied the thoughts and diction of another: such quotations are indeed little more than repetitions, which might justly be censured, did they not gratify the mind, by affording a kind of intellectual history.

Johnson 2015: 98

To see a good example of such an exhibition, look at Anne McDermott’s discussion of the quotations under ‘mispend (sic)’. As she points out, ‘The quotations are arranged in such a way that they give different inflections to the meaning of the word and tease out some of the religious overtones that the word has for Johnson’ (http://projects.chass.utoronto.ca/chwp/mcdermot/ [accessed 20 April 2018]).

Robert DeMaria Jr’s book, Johnson’s Dictionary and the Language of Learning (1986), discusses this aspect of Johnson’s work to reveal how his quotations constitute an intellectual and cultural world in themselves. ‘As an encyclopedic book of quotations, the Dictionary both records a history of knowledge and is itself an important event in that history’ (p. 33). In this respect, as we’ve seen, Johnson’s work participated in a continental tradition of dictionaries that included quotations for the purposes of educating via exposure to morally, philosophically or culturally instructive sentiments. The result is that the quotations help his dictionary function not only as a word-list but also as ‘an intellectual history of an entire national culture’ (Korshin 1974: 311).

Selecting quotations to illustrate a ‘genealogy of sentiments’, thus revealing how chosen authors share a common intellectual and literary tradition, is another anticipation of OED, which has been described as ‘the greatest of all literary echo-chambers in our language’ (Taylor 1993: 6) For discussion and examples in OED, see further Brewer 2010a: 109ff.

Go to next page on Johnson’s dictionary: Explaining meaning.

Last updated on 9 October 2019