A pint is a common measure of beer in England. A smaller glass is called a half pint. So, who decided on this spelling of “pint”? Why was it not spelled as pynte? I was about to find out everything about it on a sunny summer day in London. I was visiting the house of Dr. Samuel Johnson which is a museum dedicated to the dictionary in English he wrote with his team. This visit to house of Dr. Samuel Johnson revealed much about the English dictionary.
Inside, a narrow wooden staircase led to the second floor. I climbed up, turned right and entered a room flooded with sunlight. The light came tumbling in through six foot-tall glass windows set into light green walls. Below each of the three windows, overlooking the cobbled street that led to the main entrance of the house, was a horizontal plank of wood meant to serve as a bench. Old paintings adorned the walls. At the center of the room lay a red carpet. On it stood a round wooden table and a pair of chairs. A couple of books, similar in appearance, lay open on the table. Bound in leather, both were at least a foot long and three inches thick. Their visible page numbers suggest that a reader might have gone halfway through their contents and forgotten to close the books.
I approached the table and turned the pages of one book to the first page. The title was long, with the words alternately written in black and red ink – one word to each line – filling the entire page. “Dictionary of the English Language,” it said, “in which words are deduced in their different significances by examples…”
This was just what I had come looking for – the dictionary in two volumes compiled by Dr. Samuel Johnson and his team on the third-floor attic of this very house. It was published in April 1775, while Mughal Emperor Shah Alam the Second was ruling India.
I looked around the brightly lit attic, absorbing the details with interest. I noted the wooden floor and the sparse furniture – a table and a few chairs. At one time, I reflected, this very place must have been crammed with people working on a new dictionary. A poster on the wall told the story of its author. Dr. Johnson had apparently rented this house after a group of publishers approached him in 1746 with the request to compile a comprehensive dictionary of the English language that would be an improvement on the one already in use at the time – Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannium.
Dr. Johnson and his team had toiled in the attic of this very house and come up with the new dictionary, which included examples of the usage of words. It was here that the spelling of words used in the English language had been determined and it was interesting to find out how certain expressions had evolved. For example, the beer sold in London’s pubs is poured in glasses of a particular size that is referred to as a pint. There are one-pint glasses and half-pint glasses that serve as a measure of how much beer a customer wants to drink. “Let’s raise a pint together” is the local way of saying, “Let’s get together and drink some beer.” It was Dr. Johnson who had decided that the spelling of this particular word would be “pint” and not “paynte” and not any other variation.
I couldn’t help marveling at the fact that this very compilation would serve as the standard dictionary for more than a century until the Oxford English Dictionary was published in the 1920s.
I kept turning the pages till I found the relevant section for the alphabet “p” and ran my finger down the list of words, until I finally came to the word I was seeking: “pint”. It was defined as “half a quart, 12 ounces, a liquid measure…”. Below it was the example provided to illustrate how it should be used: “Well, you’ll not believe me generous till I crack half a pint with you at my own charges.”
Having explored the contents of the two volumes to my heart’s content, I stepped out of the house into the sunlight. I paused to examine the exterior with interest. Located in the old section of London, the red-brick building was four stories tall and set off with white borders and glass-paned windows, a style of architecture replicated in the houses surrounding it.
The neighborhood was certainly an interesting one, with a network of narrow lanes leading up to the main road. In fact, the cobblestoned street running past Dr. Johnson’s house was barely the length of a cricket pitch. Cars could not pass beyond this area. Across the street was a fascinating bronze statue of a cat, perched on a pedestal about four feet high. The sign on the pedestal identified the model for the statue as Dr. Johnson’s pet cat. My thoughts were with its owner as I pondered over a portrait of his that had been painted on a glass window of his home. It featured a big man with a round face. The white wig that sat on his head covered his ears, a style commonly adopted by men in that era.
For example, the beer sold in London’s pubs is poured in glasses of a particular size that is referred to as a pint. There are one-pint glasses and half-pint glasses that serve as a measure of how much beer a customer wants to drink.
On the way out I paused at the gift shop that stocked mementos associated with this famous man to ask for directions to my next destination— the pub Dr. Johnson frequented. On that late weekday morning, the shop was virtually empty. I chose a postcard and while paying for it, asked the bespectacled young salesgirl behind the counter, who had introduced herself as Ruth, if the pub frequented by Dr. Johnson was close by. I felt the urge to raise a pint at the same watering hole that quenched Dr. Johnson’s thirst as he and his team toiled on creating the dictionary.
Ruth replied with a smile, “Go out of the store, walk past the next building and turn right on the lane. After a two-minute walk, turn left and you will see it right away – the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese tavern.”
Ruth added that a pub was believed to have existed at that very spot since 1538, but it had been razed to the ground during the Great London Fire of 1666. Quickly rebuilt, however, the new pub was now owned by a brewery called Samuel Smith which supplied it with the only kind of beer served there.
Following Ruth’s directions, I turned into a dark alley which, I discovered, formed a fork. I kept to the left of that fork and noticed a sign not far away. Attached to a metal rod that jutted out of the wall of a brick building and arched downwards was a circular signboard bearing the name of the pub, written in white letters. Along with it was the information that it had been “Rebuilt 1667”.
I approached the tavern where Dr. Johnson used to be a regular. The building had a four foot-broad wood panel running along its outer wall. I paused at the narrow doorway; on the right was another long white sign protected by a glass-fronted frame. On it was indicated the names of all the kings and queens of England who had reigned from the time this pub had been in existence. It was certainly a long list of rulers, I thought to myself.
Looking down the dark alley, I observed that it continued for several feet more and passed under the archway of another building and beyond it, where it met the main road which was bathed in bright sunlight. As I kept walking, I saw a couple of red buses go by. A couple of minutes later, I had reached the main thoroughfare which was called Fleet Street. Red double-decker buses and black taxies plied along it. I looked to the left. Flanking the street on either side were four and five-story buildings, mostly in red brick. Further ahead, the road to the right and from behind the houses rose the gigantic white dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
I had come full circle as my visit to house of Dr. Samuel Johnson that day began by exiting the London underground train at the St. Paul Tube Station. This area, along the banks of the Thames River, was fortified by the Romans around 46 AD and the settlement they started was called Londonium.
Having basked in the warmth of the sunlight flooding Fleet Street, it was time for me to walk back into the alley. The tavern entrance led into a narrow space with a door on either side. I peered to the right, where a small, ten foot-square area served as a bar. Its wood-paneled walls were the color of dark mahogany. With a quick glance, I took in the clientele; three people sat at a table and one person stood at the bar with a glass of beer. All seemed like office goers meeting for lunch. I walked in through the door.
An elderly man in a crisp white short-sleeved shirt tucked into black trousers approached me and asked, “Would you like to join us for lunch?”
I nodded. This was a larger area, with an ambiance similar to that of the wood-paneled room. On the wall opposite the doorway was a fireplace. The place was quite empty; just one couple sat at a table by the window, studying the menu.
“Which was Dr. Johnson’s regular spot?” I asked the elderly man.
He pointed to the fireplace. “To the right of the fireplace,” he replied, adding, “please go and have a seat below that painting. I will get you a menu.”
I approached the spot he had indicated and gazed up at the large painting of Dr. Johnson that hung on the wall. The inscription on a metal plate fixed below it indicated that this had been his regular place during his visits to the pub. I sat on the bench that had been placed near the corner along the wall. Then noticing another sign, made of brass, affixed to the adjoining wall a couple of feet away, I stood up and leaned forward to read what was written on it. It said that this was the place where author Charles Dickens had sat regularly.
I kept to the left of that fork and noticed a sign not far away. Attached to a metal rod that jutted out of the wall of a brick building and arched downwards was a circular signboard bearing the name of the pub, written in white letters.
Waiting for the menu to arrive, I could not help wonder if this was the very place that Dickens had referred to in one of his novels, A Tale of Two Cities, where a character visits a tavern located in an alley near Fleet Street.
I remembered the blue sign at the entrance to Dr. Johnson’s house. Written on it in white letters was one of the owner’s famous quotes: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
Having renewed my interest in the city I took out my map of London to plan which other nearby alleys I would explore after lunch, strolling through the lanes and by-lanes of the area where the Romans had founded this very city more than 2,000 years ago. I thought of the dome of St Paul’s and looked at my map closely for the name of a street. Near St Paul’s was the Leadenhall Market, that is believed to have been the central marketplace of the first settlement built by the Romans almost two thousand years ago. The settlement was called Londonium.
After my leisurely lunch of fish and chips was washed down by raising a couple of pints, a leisurely stroll would take me to Leadenhall market.
Dr. Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square, London EC4A 3DE; Ph: 44-2073533745; entry: £7; www.drjohnsonshouse.org; Tube: St. Paul.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is located at 145 Fleet Street, London EC4A 2BU
Leadenhall Market, Grace Church Street, London, EC3 ULT, Tube: Bank or Tube: ST Paul, www.Leadenhallmarket.co.uk
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Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick, Wikimedia Commons