19 December 2012


I have in my possession a very battered old dictionary that smells of ancient tobacco smoke. Actually, that is not quite true because I have only the second volume (L to Z) of Samuel Johnson's famous "A Dictionary of the English Language" printed in 1778 (sixth edition). I can't make out the first owner's name. It was John something or other and he inscribed his name inside the front cover in 1789 along with a couple of pages of handwritten Ancient Greek.

I have just spent a happy hour flicking through the pages which as you might imagine, stealthily reveal differences between the world we live in now and the world as it appeared at the back end of the eighteenth century. Johnson's definition of "motor" is simply "mover" and there is only one word with the prefix "tele-" - and that is telescope. The words "penis" and "vagina" are not included and nor is "moron", "ski" or "lavatory". A "luncheon" is apparently "as much food as one's hand can hold" and the word was, it seems, derived from "clutch" or "clunch".

There are very many botanical words including "lustwort", "lungwort", "moschatel" and "scurvygrass". Another curious word I spotted was "swanskin" which was a kind of "soft flannel" - hopefully not actually made from swans!

We all know what the word "woman" means but did you ever use it as a verb? Johnson defines "womaning" as "making pliant like a woman". But a man who is accompanied by or united with a woman is "womaned". And we all know about the typical "womaniser" - Casanova, Errol Flynn or Eric Pickles - but in Johnson's dictionary to "womanise" simply means to emasculate, "to effeminate" or to soften - nothing concerning sexual debauchery.

A lovely word I had never heard before was the adjective "skimbleskamble" which meant "wandering" or "wild". I am not sure how it would have been used. Perhaps - "Earl Gray's skimbleskamble hens headed for the hedgerow" or "The skimbleskamble lane twisted its way across the moors."

"Reindeer" is spelt "raindeer" and rather lazily Johnson tells us it is a "deer with large horns which, in the northern regions draws sledges through the snow". No hint here of the close relationship between Lapps and the reindeer herds upon which their very survival depended.

To Johnson, "orgasm" meant "sudden vehemence" and a "thunderstone"  was "fabulously supposed to be emitted by thunder". "Tea" was a "Chinese plant of which the infusion has lately been much drank in Europe" and a "slabberer" was of course "one who slabbers - an idiot". "Slabbering" should not be confused with "slubbering" which is all about doing things lazily, imperfectly with "idle hurry" and a "slubberdegullion" was a "paltry, dirty, sorry wretch".

There - that's enough. I am sure if you're really interested in Johnson's dictionary you will be able to access it somewhere online.


  1. I shall name my next hen skimbleskamble
    in respect to your studies

  2. EARL GRAY "Skimbleskamble" is a bit of a mouthful. How about "punk" instead? In 1778 it meant meant "whore or common prostitute".
    RHYMES WITH PLAGUE You will be if you are feeling lucky!

  3. What a wonderful possession! I love looking through old books. In fact, I like old things in general. That's probably why I like you, YP.

    I see on Project Gutenberg there is, if not this dictionary, the preface to it. It is fascinating enough! It begins:
    "It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.

    Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries ....."

  4. KATHERINE The preface should have looked ahead and included ardent bloggers too!...BTW I knew you'd get me back about the patella comment you, you...(CENSORED BY BLOGGER CONTROL)

  5. YP. And I knew as soon as I included the photo of my patella that you'd make a comment regarding its state of health...

    Thanks for your Chrissie card, BTW.

    Yours is in the post.

  6. Shakespeare uses "skimble-skamble" in Henry IV Part One: "Such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff / As puts me from my faith." says Hotspur. Blimey, I knew my Eng Lit degree would come in useful one day.


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