The Samuel Johnson Code

Back in 2008, British English was still not well catered for by OS X. Getting British spell-checking to work properly with the likes of Pages was quite fiddly, and OS X seemed scared to put its British English spelling dictionary out in the open for us to use. This led me to write the following piece, firmly tongue in cheek, of course.

We should not be surprised that we perhaps still do not know the real reasons for invading Iraq, when there remains the deep historical mystery surrounding the American Revolution. Of course the books fob us off with an unconvincing story about disputes over taxes, lands, and the like, but an acquaintance was telling me recently of radical research that is set to overturn this perpetuated misinformation.

To understand the real cause, you need to go back to 1635, when Cardinal Richelieu founded the Académie Française, which delivered the first official French dictionary in 1694, and ever since has maintained a vice-like grip over the language.

It took the English state, and its institutions, many years to understand the importance of the lingua franca in an expanding empire, and when it did, those institutions could not agree as to which of them should become the guardian of the Mother Tongue. The first attempt at a monolingual wordlist of English, in 1604, had anticipated the French, but as so often seems to happen, the development of a proper dictionary lagged our rivals by over 50 years.

Samuel Johnson saved the day, albeit belatedly in 1755 with the publication of his 42,000 word Dictionary of the English Language, the tool with which to take total command of the dominions. By 1763, the American colonists realised that linguistic control was upon them, and started to revolt. Before the Boston Tea Party, the few precious official copies of Johnson’s dictionary in the American lands were destroyed in commando-style raids, leading to open war in 1775, and the rest is history.

Ever since then, however special our relationship might become, the US has kept its distance and dissonance through language: disparate spellings such as colour/color, variegated vocabulary such as trunk (boot) and sidewalk (pavement), and mutilated grammar that screams a declaration of independence into every truly English ear. Other nations labouring under contrasting linguistic heritages have failed to overthrow the indomitable English, showing how standardised Spanish, formal French, even regulated German fell short of the Mother Tongue.

Against this background, my earlier revelations about the inadequacy of non-US English spelling support in OS X may appear to be heinous steps in ongoing guerilla warfare. As one reader, Jolin Warren, has pointed out, the situation may not be as bad as I first thought, but we await thorough forensic linguistic analysis on the contents of the supposed British English dictionary.

This is made the more difficult by its concealment: examination of /Library/Dictionaries reveals the obviously phoney “Oxford American English Dictionary”, clearly a forgery emanating from the White House’s covert Office of American Cultural Propaganda, an organ of which Richelieu would feel deviously proud.

I was therefore unsurprised when MacUser’s mailbox was only slightly less than inundated with your expressions of concern and frustration over this deep flaw in OS X, its lack of core support for British English. Just when the cognoscenti have grokked how to get Mail to meet those pesky Californians in mid-Atlantic entente, the not so cordiale Pages ambushes us and destroys Johnson’s great legacy in one fell dialogue/dialog.

My spirits were lifted by regular inquisitor Gail Everett’s latest request for not just a British English dictionary, but a tool to check spellings a la mode de Charles II, a century before Johnson himself, and the era in which the finest minds in France were fomenting francophone imperialism in the official dictionary of the Académie Francaise.

The solution lies not in Mac OS X’s strangely concealed spelling dictionaries, but in the appropriately-named Excalibur, freeware from here, which allows you to check against your own dictionary, whether Johnson’s revolutionary or Jobs’ ordinary. Meanwhile, buoyed up by historical research and impossible coincidences including the too-coincidental name Excalibur, my book-length account of this long-running conspiracy is nearing completion. I am confident that it will be snapped up and turned into a blockbuster screenplay.

I had almost forgotten this episode until today, when a tweet pointed me at the final nail in the coffin for the (mythical) Office of American Cultural Propaganda: a tool to enable you to write CSS “using proper British English anywhere”. Its GitHub project page is here, and assures us that we will no longer have to mis-spell colour or grey, and will be able to use !please instead of !important. !enjoy.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 24 issue 09, 2008.