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April 15, 2014

Johnson’s Dictionary

Samuel Johnson    (1709 - 1784)

Samuel Johnson
(1709 – 1784)

By Steve King.

On this day in 1755 Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published. Johnson’s dictionary is considered the first significant work of its kind in English, most notable for the precision of its definitions and the inclusion of exemplary quotations; it is also prized as a reflection of Johnson’s legendary wit and quirky personality.

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April 1, 2014

Of Rochester and Rakes

John Wilmot    (1647 - 1680)

John Wilmot
(1647 – 1680)

By Steve King.

On this day in 1647 John Wilmot, perhaps the most notorious of the Restoration rakes, was born. By poem and play, song and satire, maid and monkey — some say he trained his pet monkey to excrete upon his guests, others say he merely encouraged it — the 2nd Earl of Rochester became the talk of town and Court. If, as Samuel Johnson said, he “blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness,” he also wrote, said Hazlitt, verses that “cut and sparkle like diamonds.”

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January 24, 2014

Congreve, Fondlewife, Maskwell….

William Congreve    (1670 - 1729)

William Congreve
(1670 – 1729)

By Steve King

On this day in 1670 English playwright William Congreve was born. His “comedy of manners” toasted and tilted at the “gala day of wit and pleasure” enjoyed by those who lived in the inner circles of power, or wished they did — “men and women of quick brains and cynical humours,” says the Cambridge History, who talk “with the brilliance and rapidity wherewith the finished swordsman fences.”

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November 19, 2013

Rhyme War: Shadwell vs. Dryden

Thomas Shadwell

Thomas Shadwell

by Steve King

On this day in 1692 the British poet and playwright Thomas Shadwell died. Shadwell wrote eighteen plays and became poet laureate but, as the Columbia History of English Literature puts it, “he enjoyed a popularity in his own day which is not easily explicable in ours.” This is utter kindness compared to contemporary John Dryden, who enthroned Shadwell as “The King of Dullness.”

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May 21, 2013

Pope as Hedgehog and Monkey

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Henry Greeff @ 5:47 am
Alexander Pope   (1688 - 1744)

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744)

On this day in 1688 Alexander Pope was born in London, the only child of middle-aged, Catholic parents. His religion barred him from politics, or from attending university for a professional career, and his teenage tuberculosis made him a hunchback no more than 4′ 6″ tall. Many biographers portray him as an outsider and attribute his penchant for satire to such a convergence of circumstances.

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May 19, 2013

Boswell and Good

James Boswell    (1740 - 1795)

James Boswell
(1740 – 1795)

On this day in 1795 James Boswell died, aged fifty-four. Even without his two-decade relationship to Samuel Johnson and the famous books which came from it, Boswell would have a secure place in literary history. This is due to the remarkable stash of journals, letters and personal papers which he kept, and which friends, relatives and negligence kept from the world for over a century.

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May 2, 2013

Shakespeare & Shrews

William Shakespeare   (1564 - 1616)

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

On this day in 1594, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew was entered in the Stationers’ Register. Much of the main plot seems to come from a 1550 popular ballad called “Here Begynneth a Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, Lapped in Morrelles Skin, for her Good Behaviour.” By the endeth, this contribution to the shrew-taming canon was merry from only one perspective. . . .

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April 19, 2013

Does Spelling Matter? by Simon Horobin – review

Look at me … Quirky spellings, as used in the film title Inglourious Basterds, invariably attract attention.

Look at me … Quirky spellings, as used in the film title Inglourious Basterds, invariably attract attention.

Tony Blair and Dan Quayle have both made famous gaffes. Henry Hitchings on the importance of spelling.

The title of Simon Horobin’s book poses what, at first blush, seems a banal question. I imagine most readers would answer “Yes, spelling matters”, perhaps adding “though not as much as some believe”. Yet if the question of how words should be written is not uppermost in many people’s minds, its nagging everyday presence is nonetheless evident in the existence of spell-checkers and school spelling tests, as well as in mnemonics designed to help us with spellings, such as the venerable “i before e except after c”.

Phenomena of this kind betray an unease about the irregularities of spelling, and English spelling (Horobin’s focus, though he does say a bit about spelling reform in French, Dutch and German) has long drawn complaint. This has ranged from the smooth-tongued – Jerome K Jerome’s line that English spelling “would seem to have been designed chiefly as a disguise to pronunciation” – to the splenetic, such as the view of the Austrian linguist Mario Wandruszka that it is “an insult to human intelligence”. Lament is certainly the norm, so it may be a surprise to meet with the assessment of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle that English spelling “comes remarkably close to being an optimal … system”.

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The OED, the Professor & the Madman

James Murray

James Murray

On this date in 1928, the final volume of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. The original estimate was that the complete four-volume set would take ten years; when it took five years to get to “ant,” the editors knew they had underestimated spectacularly. They did not know that they were being significantly helped by a contributor from the insane asylum.

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January 6, 2013

“The Mother of English Fiction”

Fanny Burney   (1752 - 1840)

Fanny Burney
(1752 – 1840)

On this day in 1840 Fanny Burney died. Burney’s four novels have earned her favorable comparisons to other giants of the genre-Austen, Richardson, Dickens-and Virginia Woolf’s declaration that she is “the mother of English fiction.” If a best-seller and a celebrity in her own day, it is as a diarist that Burney is now best known-one who was eye-witness to The Madness of King George, and who enlivened the later years of Samuel Johnson.

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