A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is helping bring Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language into the the digital age. (Photo by Karen Norum)

UCF Researchers Bring 1755 Literary Work into Digital Age

By: Robert H. Wells on

In the 1700s, scholars envisioned a new kind of all-encompassing dictionary that would help preserve the ever-changing English language before some words and their meanings were lost to time.

Now it’s that same dictionary that needs preserving, and UCF researchers are stepping up to the task.

With a recently received $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, UCF researchers are working to bring Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, into the digital age.

The project will create the first complete, online and fully searchable version of the famous 18th-century writer’s magnum opus from 1755. The dictionary is considered one of the most influential works of English literature of all time.

The researchers will also do the same for the fourth edition from 1773, the most updated version before Johnson’s death in 1784.

“It’s a major piece of English literature,” says Beth Rapp Young, the project’s principal investigator and an associate professor in UCF’s Department of English. “The 18th century has been called the age of Johnson. People have credited it with helping to establish the literary cannon. It’s also very important to the history of the language, and it’s still important to scholarship today. There are a lot of reasons we want to know what words meant back in the 18th century, and this is the book people turn to in order to find out.”

Johnson, born in 1709, was an author known for his humor and extensive literary knowledge, both of which were reflected in the two-volume, more than 2,000-page dictionary that contains over 42,000 words and has a combined weight of more than 20 pounds.

Not only did his dictionary entries contain witty definitions, such as the one for a lexicographer which defines a dictionary writer as “a harmless drudge,” but also illustrative quotations from the literature of the day to give an entry context.

Being quoted in Johnson’s dictionary gave an author’s work literary legitimacy. And because the dictionary offers a snapshot of the vocabulary of the time, it is also a resource for present-day legal, historical and literature scholars.

For example, a legal scholar may want to look up the precise meaning of a word used by America’s founders at the time of the writing of the U.S. Constitution, as Johnson’s dictionary was a contemporary literary work.

Johnson’s dictionary is one of the earliest dictionaries of the English language and is distinct in its comprehensive entries that included almost all of the words of the time, not just the hard ones. It is also noted for its memorable definitions and illustrative quotations, which made it not just a study aid, but also a readable book. Johnson was hired to write the dictionary, a work that many 18th century scholars hoped would codify the English language that had been changing throughout the centuries.

“They hoped the dictionary would stop the language from changing so fast, so that future generations could understand them,” Young says. “It was a way to keep their language from becoming obsolete, the way some of Chaucer’s language had and the way Shakespeare’s was heading.”

Compared to today’s dictionaries, Johnson’s contains fewer entries and more wit, but it was still used to learn what words mean. The thoroughness of Johnson’s work set the precedent for comprehensive dictionaries, such as Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford English Dictionary, both of which were heavily influenced by Johnson.

To get the dictionary online and ready for scholarly searches, Young and her team will have high-quality scans of the dictionary generated, which will then be transcribed by a private company into editable, digital text with some initial coding to format the entries.

Young’s team will then proof the text and add additional XML codes to enable thorough searching throughout the work and to allow linking to Library of Congress records. They will build a custom database to provide sophisticated search functions. The entire work will be eventually uploaded to a website for anyone to peruse. It’s expected to take about three years to complete.

The finished project will be a major upgrade compared to existing digital versions of the dictionary, which were either crowdsourced, incomplete and contained errors or only available on an expensive, hard-to-find, 20-year-old CD-ROM with slow and limited search features.

“I’m really excited, and I’m really proud,” Young says. “We’re going to do something that’s great, that’s useful, and it’s going to make UCF look good.”

Collaborators on the project include co-principal investigator Jack Lynch, a professor of English at Rutgers University and a Johnson scholar; co-principal investigator Carmen Faye Mathes, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of English; co-principal investigator Amy Larner Giroux ’85 ’09MA ’14PhD, the associate director of UCF’s Center for Humanities and Digital Research; and project assistant William Dorner ’07 ’10MA ’15PhD, an instructional technology coordinator with UCF’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning.

Young received her doctorate and master’s degree in English from the University of Southern California and her bachelor’s degree in English from Rollins College. She joined UCF in 1997. Her areas of expertise include composition, grammar, and online teaching.

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