Henry Hitchings

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Henry Hitchings
Born (1974-12-11) 11 December 1974 (age 45)
Alma materEton College
Christ Church, Oxford
University College London
Known forAuthor and critic

Henry Hitchings FRSL (born 11 December 1974) is an author, reviewer and critic, specializing in narrative non-fiction, with a particular emphasis on language and cultural history. The second of his books, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, won the 2008 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award. He has written two books about Samuel Johnson and has served as the president of the Johnson Society of Lichfield.[1] As a critic, he has mainly written about books and theatre. As of 2018, he is chair of the drama section of the UK's Critics' Circle.[2]


He was a King's Scholar at Eton College before going to Christ Church, Oxford, and then to University College London to research his PhD on Samuel Johnson.[3]


Dr Johnson's Dictionary[edit]

In 2005 Hitchings published Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World,[4] a biography of Samuel Johnson's epochal A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). The first popular account of Dr Johnson's magnum opus, it "charts the struggle and ultimate triumph of one of the first attempts to 'fix' the language, which despite its imperfections proved to be one of the English language's most significant cultural monuments".[5]

Avoiding the more usual portrayal of Dr Johnson as "a lovable eccentric", Hitchings "keeps drawing attention to the unremitting intelligence that Johnson's lexicographical labours demanded, not least in separating out the ramifying senses of common words".[6] Whilst declaring, "Hitchings's task is to rescue Johnson from Boswell's attentions," Will Self pointed out, "The Johnson of the Dictionary was never known to Boswell, and as the older man was ill-disposed to animadvert on his younger self, Boswell got such basics as the great man's working methods on the Dictionary glaringly wrong. Not so Hitchings."[7]

The American edition was titled Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary.[8]

In the United States, Defining the World won the Modern Language Association's prize for the best work by an independent scholar in 2005.[9]

The Secret Life of Words[edit]

In April 2008 Hitchings published The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, a study of loanwords, calques and their cultural significance.[10] Following the English language's history through "its debt to invasions, to threats from abroad, and to an island people's dealings with the world beyond its shores" the book examines its unbroken acquisitiveness—"but for all that [Hitchings'] true object is to reveal past frames of mind and to show how our present outlook is informed by the history squirreled away in the words we use".[11] Instead of using history to explain language, Hitchings "picks words apart to find their origins" and then molds this "mountain of dense information into an elegant narrative".[12] The Economist noted that "whatever is hybrid, fluid and unpoliced about English delights him".[13]

The book was published in America under the same title the following September.[14]

In November 2008 The Secret Life of Words won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the first work of non-fiction to do so in six years. The chair of the judges, Henry Sutton, described it as a landmark, vast in scope and '"written with an unnerving precision, clarity and grace", adding "amazingly accessible, it's written with great grace and enthusiasm and humour, and is also a scholarly work."[15] The shortlist had also included the winner of the 2008 Booker Prize, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.[16]

In March 2009, on the strength of The Secret Life of Words, Hitchings was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.[17] In June 2009 he received a Somerset Maugham Award.[18]

Who's Afraid of Jane Austen?[edit]

How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read, a guide to books and literary erudition, was released in October 2008.[19] The paperback edition was given the name Who's Afraid of Jane Austen?: How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read.[20]

The Language Wars[edit]

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English was published in February 2011.[21] It is "a detailed narrative of the attempts ... to make rules about how we speak and write"[22] and "a historical guide to the sometimes splenetic battles that have been fought over English down the centuries".[23] Craig Brown called it a book "full of complex ideas expressed with crystal clarity", adding that "the range of Hitchings' knowledge and curiosity is remarkable".[24] Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, after praising the book as "crisply written, amusing, informative and thought-provoking", commented that "it is an agony not to be able to use English properly. Mr Hitchings eschews the rules: he can do that only because he knows them".[25]

The book was published in America under the same title in October 2011.[26]

Sorry! The English and their Manners[edit]

Hitchings's fifth book, Sorry! The English and their Manners, was published in January 2013. Writing about it in the Guardian, Ian Sansom commented that its research offered "a kind of restless, wandering, burrowing through history and ideas" and that the book "reveals ... the kind of writer Hitchings really is: an overseer, guardian, wise man, guide."[27]


In 2016 Hitchings edited a collection of original essays about bookshops, with the title Browse: The World in Bookshops. Its contributors included Alaa Al Aswany, Stefano Benni, Michael Dirda, Daniel Kehlmann, Andrey Kurkov, Yiyun Li, Pankaj Mishra, Dorthe Nors, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Ian Sansom, Elif Shafak, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith, Sasa Stanisic and Juan Gabriel Vasquez.[28]

The World in 38 Chapters, or Dr Johnson's Guide to Life[edit]

In June 2018 Hitchings published his sixth full-length book, returning to the subject of his first, Samuel Johnson.[29] Jane Darcy, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, explained that "The book’s subtitle, Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life, may evoke that popular sub-genre of self-help books which co-opt historical celebrities to present tips for the modern world, but Hitchings, like his favourite author, has a serious moral purpose. Despite his often breezily demotic tone, he is deeply attuned to Johnson’s melancholy, tracing its presence throughout his adult life and its influence on his thinking about pain and suffering", and commented that "Hitchings inevitably revisits familiar places and favourite quotations. But the pleasures of this book lie in Hitchings’s fresh re-evaluation of them". [30] Craig Brown commented that "Hitchings himself could be said to provide positive proof of Dr Johnson’s benign influence on the world. As this delightful book goes on, his own aphorisms grow more like Dr Johnson’s, as though infected with that robust sympathy and intelligence. Looking through my notes for this review, I sometimes found it hard to recall which phrase was coined by H. Hitchings, and which by S. Johnson."[31]

Other writing and television[edit]

In May 2009 Hitchings became the theatre critic on the London Evening Standard, replacing Nicholas de Jongh.[32] He left this role in 2019, after more than ten years, following cost-cutting at the paper.

He has written for the Financial Times, the New Statesman, The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and the Times Literary Supplement, amongst other publications, and has made radio, television and festival appearances.

Hitchings was the writer and presenter of the documentary Birth of the British Novel which was first broadcast on BBC Four on Monday 7 February 2011.[33] He had previously been a featured contributor to the documentary Samuel Johnson: The Dictionary Man in 2006.[34]

He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2015.[35] In 2018 he took up the position of president of the Johnson Society of Lichfield;[36] he was succeeded by Rowan Williams.[37]


  1. ^ https://johnsonnew.wordpress.com/past-presidents/
  2. ^ http://www.criticscircle.org.uk/drama/
  3. ^ Rogers, Coleridge & White Literary Agency. Henry Hitchings Archived 15 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Hitchings, Henry (2005), Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, London: John Murray, ISBN 0-7195-6631-2.
  5. ^ Jemma Read. "Harmless drudge at work" The Observer, 24 April 2005
  6. ^ John Carey. "Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings" The Sunday Times, 27 March 2005
  7. ^ Will Self. "The first literary celebrity" The New Statesman, 16 May 2005
  8. ^ Hitchings, Henry (2005), Defining the World: the extraordinary story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-11302-5
  9. ^ Modern Language Association. Prize for Independent Scholars Archived 12 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Hitchings, Henry (2008), The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, London: John Murray, ISBN 978-0-7195-6454-3.
  11. ^ Katherine A. Powers. "The hidden, joyful world of words" The Boston Globe, 5 October 2008
  12. ^ Kate Colquhoun. "How English became English" The Daily Telegraph, 12 April 2008
  13. ^ Economist's Reviewer. "The Secret Life of Words" The Economist, 18 September 2008
  14. ^ Hitchings, Henry (2008), The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-25410-9
  15. ^ Alison Flood. "Rare victory for non-fiction book in John Llewellyn Rhys prize" The Guardian, 24 November 2008
  16. ^ Press Release. "Men Dominate The Shortlist For The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize" Archived 12 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine booktrade.info, 3 November 2008
  17. ^ Sunday Times Writer. "Oxford Literary Festival Special: The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award" The Sunday Times, 15 March 2009
  18. ^ The Society of Authors. List of Somerset Maugham Award Winners Archived 26 June 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Hitchings, Henry (2008), How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read, London: John Murray, ISBN 978-1-84854-009-5
  20. ^ Hitchings, Henry (2009), Who's Afraid of Jane Austen?: How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read, London: John Murray, ISBN 978-1-84854-019-4
  21. ^ Hitchings, Henry (2011), The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, London: John Murray, ISBN 978-1-84854-208-2.
  22. ^ Ian McMillan. "Speak for yourself thanks to a living, breathing language" Yorkshire Post, 11 January 2011
  23. ^ Andrew Holgate. "The Language Wars", The Sunday Times, 23 January 2011
  24. ^ Craig Brown. "The Language Wars", The Mail on Sunday, 30 January 2011
  25. ^ Charles Moore. "The language police are a force for good" The Daily Telegraph, 31 January 2011
  26. ^ Hitchings, Henry (2011), The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-18329-5
  27. ^ Ian Sansom. "Sorry! The English and their Manners" Guardian, 16 January 2013
  28. ^ http://pushkinpress.com/book/browse/
  29. ^ Details from publisher's website.
  30. ^ https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/better-to-enjoy/
  31. ^ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-5816489/Craig-Brown-misunderstood-genius-Dr-Johnson.html
  32. ^ Lalayn Baluch. "Hitchings is Evening Standard’s new theatre critic" The Stage, 7 May 2009
  33. ^ John Lloyd. "Morality plays at the top of the bill" Financial Times, 11 February 2011
  34. ^ YouTube video of the broadcast.
  35. ^ http://rsliterature.org/fellows/current-fellows/
  36. ^ https://johnsonnew.wordpress.com/past-presidents/
  37. ^ https://johnsonnew.wordpress.com/birthday-supper/