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Johnson and Ornithology

Samuel Johnson may have been an outstanding lexicographer, but his knowledge of ornithology was more than deficient — at least by today’s standards.

The resulting side-benefit is the magnificent word “conglobulation” which Johnson appears to have conjured up from his own learning.

He was given to coining complex English words from Latin roots, such as “inpissated.” The word is Latin for “thickened, made dense,” and Johnson used it in the phrase “inpissated gloom” for the mood evoked by Shakespeare’s descriptions of the ominous nightfall in MacBeth.

In an argument about The Beggar’s Opera, he declared: “There is in it such a labefaction of all principles as may be injurious to morality.”

“Labefaction” means “weakening, overthrowing” and comes from the Latin “labefacere” — to make totter, or fall.

“Anfractuosity” was another of the doctor’s conversational bludgeons. Again, it is almost pure Latin — from an adjective meaning winding or roundabout.

Johnson asserted: “Among the anfractuosities of the human mind … there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a picture.”

“Conglobulation” came into being as a result of an argument over swallows! In Johnson’s day, most learned men believed that these birds hibernated in the autumn and emerged in the spring from their winter quarters.

Migration to the south was inconceivable, for how could such little birds bear up against the “meteorous turbulences” they would encounter on such a journey.

The naturalist Gilbert White had noticed that swifts in the autumn seemed bleached. This, he reasoned, was due to the heat of t-he English summer. If they did follow the sun into lower latitudes they should therefore be even more bleached when they returned in the spring!

White was convinced the swallows had “secret dormitories,” if only he could find them. So he poked with his walking stick into the mud at the edge of the ponds, pro-dded the thatch of cottages, and peered into chimney stacks.

No swallows were ever found and his hypothesis remained unproven. But Dr Johns-on was not a naturalist — nor was he troubled by such trifling scientific scruples as proving hypotheses.

He had no doubts at all about the hibernation theory, and asserted Gilbert Whites’ conjecture as absolute fact. Lest anyone dare contradict him, he reinforced his dogmatism with a rare word of thunderous Latinity.

“Swallows certainly sleep all the winter,” he wrote. “A number of them conglobulate together by flying round and round, and t-hen all in a heap throw themselves under water.”

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