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15th of October 2018


Wordplay: Johnson (noun) - a simpatico lingo dynamo

Xylophones existed in 1755, but not if you ask Dr Samuel Johnson. Same applies to xiphoid, the nubby cartilage below your sternum, or xenophobia. Even xanthic, meaning yellowy, was on the scene, yet Johnson ignored the lot. The problem was deadline. His Dictionary of the English Language was already years overdue and his advance was long since blown.

Cue the quick fix. On page 2308 of his eventual tome, Johnson added an apologia, right where every X-entry was expected, arguing, "X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language".

in 1755, Dr Samuel Johnson insisted there were no words beginning with "X" in the English language.

in 1755, Dr Samuel Johnson insisted there were no words beginning with "X" in the English language.Credit:Simon Letch

Pretty damn smooth, not to say deluded. Critics cite the doctor's claim as a proto-piece of mansplaining, but the tactic was forgivable. As it stands, Johnson's dictionary embraces more than 40,000 headwords, from abbey-lubber (a cloister loiterer) to zetitick (proceeding by inquiry), with no dearth of wonders in between. Stuff such as bousy (drunk) and guggle – "to sound as water running with intermissions out of a narrow-mouthed vessel" - or even smellfeast: "a parasite; one who haunts good tables."

Indeed, lexophiles around the world will guggle until bousy soon, as Dr J turns 309 on September 18, the candles alone set to panic local fire authorities whose members are destined to hover about the pav like so many smellfeasts.

Henry Hitchings, an English author, will number among the revellers. His latest book, The World in 38 Chapters, or Dr Johnson's Guide to Life (Macmillan), is fond testament to Johnson's legacy far beyond the dictionary itself. When not ignoring xylophones, the good doctor was an essayist, translator, playwright, poet and all-round giant of the mind. As Hitchings puts it, "his Instagram feed would [have been] wack".

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