Language all the way down

Reviewing some new books about Samuel Johnson, Kate Chisolm notes Johnson’s conclusion concerning the impossibility of lexicography:

“in the preface to his great Dictionary of 1755, in which he confesses that he set out to codify the language only to realize before he was even halfway through that no such thing is possible. Instead of giving up, Johnson persisted, even while recognizing the futility of his ambition, and understanding too well that ‘one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.’” “Words,” Johnson wrote, “are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can b e accurately delineated from its picture in the water.”

Had he spoken French, the man who kicked the rock in refutation of Berkeley might well have spouted Francophone nonsense like “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”


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