Tag: Western Civ.

Thank Samuel Johnson for the Jane Austen Revival

Without his “Dictionary,” you probably wouldn’t be able to make sense of “Sense and Sensibility”

Do you like being able to read Jane Austen?

How about understanding the Declaration of Independence?

Do you like having a snowball’s chance in hell at getting to the meaning of Shakespeare?

Then thank the dictionary.

In particular, thank Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).


England first developed a literate population in the 1700s, when reading became fashionable and widespread. It had become so popular that the London Chronicle, at Johnson’s suggestion, started publishing a new genre of writing that would have been unheard just of a few decades earlier: the book review.

With this rise in reading came a movement to stabilize the English language, which had been undergoing fast and colossal changes over the past 200 years, making Elizabethan English much different than Georgian England’s:

Elizabethan English grew so fast, putting on muscle so swiftly and in such unforeseeable places, that it was both exciting and unpredictable . . . [T]here was no thing as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ spelling. Everyone spelt a word in the way he thought it ought to be spelt.” John Wain, Samuel Johnson (1974), 138.

Some, like Johnathan Swift, wanted to establish a formal academy, along French lines, to stabilize and normalize the language. If the language weren’t slowed down, their beloved Shakespeare could become indecipherable in a few generations, not to mention John Milton and the King James Version of the Bible.

Others, like Johnson, opposed Swift and the government academy approach, preferring a more relaxed one. Johnson wanted English stabilized, but not constricted. Johnson knew language by its nature changes.

So: Norms, yes. Laws, no.

A group of prosperous booksellers agreed. They came together in 1746 and offered Johnson 1,575 … Read the rest

How to Look Like You Know History

Start by memorizing a simple framework, then start filling it in

It was in the 1990s. I was listening to a group of friends discuss their different views on a subject. I don’t remember any details. I just remember it was a religious discussion of some sort and in the course of it, the topic of Islam and Muhammad came up.

“Did he come before or after Jesus?” asked one of the more opinionated participants.

I told him Jesus came about 600 years before Muhammad.

I then intuitively disregarded anything he had to say from that point forward.

My reaction may have been harsh, but it was unavoidable. In any decent discourse, you ought to be able to presume a certain “base level” of knowledge. If you’re talking about something like religion, in which history plays a huge role, it’s not unreasonable to expect others in the discussion to know something about history.

The thing is, it’s not just religion. History plays a role in a lot of subjects. You can trace historically-relevant information to any topic of discussion. Even something as “contemporary” as COVID evokes references to the Spanish Flu and Black Death . . . both historical events.

History, in short, is always relevant.

History, though, can be hard. If you weren’t raised in a home or educational environment that emphasized history, you may not have an historical framework. Without a framework, it’s difficult to fit a set of historical facts into a relevant reference. Without a relevant reference, any set of historical facts can appear to be, and indeed might be for you, just a set of random facts.

Fortunately, I believe it’s possible to develop a simple historical framework by memorizing just ten years.

A Few Caveats

There are a few things to keep in mind … Read the rest