Hitchings, Henry 1974-

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Hitchings, Henry 1974-


Born December 11, 1974. Education: Attended Oxford University; University College London, Ph.D.


Home—London, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, John Murray Publications, 388 Euston Rd., London NW1 3BH, England.


Writer and journalist.


Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World, John Murray Publications (London, England), 2005, also published as Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor to periodicals including the Financial Times, New Statesman, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.


A social history of English loanwords.


British author and journalist Henry Hitchings has long been a scholar of the English literary figure Samuel Johnson (1709-1784); even his doctoral thesis pertained to the lexicographer. Hitch-ings's first book, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World, which was published in the United States as Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, provides a thorough history of Johnson and his creation of one of the first definitive English-language dictionaries. Hitchings's tome offers a detailed biography of Johnson, including Johnson's work on the English lexicon, his health, writing methods, dealings with critics, and the historical context in which he worked. Johnson's dictionary proved to be iconic in the field, especially given the previously unheard-of practice of providing context for words by showing them in usage. Indeed, the dictionary lent thousands of definitions and the concept of contextual clarification to the subsequently published Oxford English Dictionary, long since thought to be the definitive source on the English language.

Defining the World earned widespread praise from critics. Frank Wilson, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, found the book to be filled with "fascinating bits of information," and stated that the account "sparkles on every page." Booklist reviewer Ray Olson agreed with this assessment, calling the volume a "sparkling, heady brew of a book." Additionally, a Contemporary Review contributor, critiquing the British edition, defined the work as being "among the best" of a recent spate of studies on Johnson.

Aside from commenting on the book's readability and entertainment value, many reviewers pointed out its scholarly excellence. According to Kitty Chen Dean in the Library Journal, Hitchings has presented "a readable, thoroughly researched and carefully documented study." Moreover, a Kirkus Reviews contributor praised the "playful" manner in which the "spirited, learned account" is organized—with each chapter headed by a relevant word and Johnson's definition of it. The chapters are also written in a brief manner, almost like extended dictionary definitions themselves. Applauding the book, Sarah Burton, in a Spectator review of the British edition, felt that it is "immensely likeable, written with serious intent and gentle good humour." Furthermore, London Times contributor John Carey, also discussing the British title, observed that Hitchings garners much of the information about his subject from "combing through" the tens of thousands of entries in Johnson's dictionary and noted that "[Dr. Johnson's] morality is a corrective to our destructively unequal society, and it matters, in the end, far more than any dictionary." Carey went on to conclude that "Hitchings's book, among its other excellences, never loses sight of that."

Hitchings told CA: "I've always enjoyed biographies, and I'm seduced by the idea of writing biographies of objects or phenomena as well as of people. I became excited about Samuel Johnson when I began to dip into his Dictionary, and, having originally turned to the Dictionary in order to look at its coverage of what might broadly be thought of as Science, I realized that the Dictionary was worth studying in its entirety. This eventually led to my trying to write its biography.

"At the same time that I was thinking closely about the Dictionary, I read a great deal by Samuel Pepys and Sir Thomas Browne. Perhaps more surprisingly, I was drawn at this time to the writings of James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges. I admire writers who take pleasure in language and its plasticity. I'm also an enthusiastic collector of strange, out-of-the-way information, and believe strongly that many reference works, rather than being dry and impenetrable, contain a rich stock of buried treasure. Simon Winchester's books about the Oxford English Dictionary demonstrated to me that it was possible to write a book about a reference work in a way that had genuine popular appeal. This is what I hope I have achieved."



Booklist, October 15, 2005, Ray Olson, review of Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, p. 12.

Contemporary Review, October 2005, review of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World, p. 245.

Guardian (London, England), April 2, 2005, review of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2005, review of Defining the World, p. 897.

Library Journal, September 15, 2005, Kitty Chen Dean, review of Defining the World, p. 66.

New Yorker, November 7, 2005, review of Defining the World, p. 139.

Observer (London, England), April 24, 2005, Jemma Read, review of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2, 2005, Frank Wilson, review of Defining the World.

Publishers Weekly, July 18, 2005, review of Defining the World, p. 197.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 2005, Chuck Leddy, review of Defining the World.

Spectator, April 9, 2005, Sarah Burton, review of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, p. 37.

Times (London, England), March 27, 2005, John Carey, review of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary.


Farrar, Straus and Giroux Web site,http://www.fsgbooks.com/ (April 19, 2006), brief profile of author.