Terms of corruption: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary in its contexts
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation revises our understanding of one of the most important and controversial works on language in the eighteenth century. It provides the first rhetorically situated analysis of the Preface, and offers new ways to read the Dictionary that take into account the hermeneutic challenges it poses. I employ replicable interpretive strategies for future students of the Dictionary, and offer a novel, substantive reconstruction of Johnson’s philological methods and logic. By rhetorically situating the Preface, reconstructing the interpretive logic of Johnson’s philology, and recovering Johnson’s complex and changing understanding of language change, this study makes a significant contribution to Johnson studies and revises our understanding of Johnson’s place within the history of modern language study. Chapter 1, a rhetorical analysis of the Preface, reveals its importance as an early modern masterwork of scholarly self-fashioning in an age when self-promotion was both socially and morally awkward. This reading of the Preface moreover explains how and why we should limit its role in determining our views about Johnson’s ideas on language. Chapter 2 shows how Johnson’s etymologies, definitions, and usage notes—usually regarded as discrete acts—are most fruitfully read as complementary interpretive activities. By showing how the parts of Johnson’s entries fit together, and by recovering the overlooked connections between separate entries, I reconstruct the logic of Johnson’s philological reasoning. Chapter 3 shows that, contrary to all accounts, Johnson’s most common and most seemingly prescriptive term to describe language change, “corruption,” is not just a term of condemnation, but a term of conjecture and inquiry operating within a context of early modern scientific discourse whereby all sublunary change is viewed as “corruption.” As I demonstrate, Johnson’s use of the term “corruption” signals his participation in a paradigm shift regarding thinking about language change and shows how he has more in common with nineteenth-century historical philologists than we ever imagined. An Epilogue provides a theoretical framework for reading the Dictionary. This dissertation not only challenges the ways that literary critics, linguists, and historians of the English language read the Dictionary, it provides sound and replicable ways to read this controversial classic text.