Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

An Introduction to Dr. Johnson's "Dictionary of the English Language"

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) 1775 (oil on canvas)
Dr. Samuel Johnson. Sir Joshua Reynolds / Getty Images

On April 15, 1755, Samuel Johnson published his two-volume Dictionary of the English Language. It wasn't the first English dictionary (more than 20 had appeared over the preceding two centuries), but in many ways it was the most remarkable. As modern lexicographer Robert Burchfield has observed, "In the whole tradition of English language and literature the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank is that of Dr. Johnson."

Unsuccessful as a schoolmaster in his hometown of Lichfield, Staffordshire (the few students he had were put off by his "oddities of manner and uncouth gesticulations"--most likely the effects of Tourette syndrome), Johnson moved to London in 1737 to make a living as an author and editor. After a decade spent writing for magazines and struggling with debt, he accepted an invitation from bookseller Robert Dodsley to compile a definitive dictionary of the English language. Dodsley solicited the patronage of the Earl of Chesterfield, offered to publicize the dictionary in his various periodicals, and agreed to pay Johnson the considerable sum of 1,500 guineas in installments.

What should every logophile know about Johnson's Dictionary? Here are a few starting points.

Johnson's Ambitions

In his "Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language," published in August 1747, Johnson announced his ambition to rationalize spellings, trace etymologies, offer guidance on pronunciation, and "preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom." Preservation and standardization were primary goals: "[O]ne great end of this undertaking," Johnson wrote, "is to fix the English language."

As Henry Hitchings notes in his book Defining the World (2006), "With time, Johnson's conservatism--the desire to 'fix' the language--gave way to a radical awareness of language's mutability.

But from the outset the impulse to standardize and straighten English out was in competition with the belief that one should chronicle what's there, and not just what one would like to see."

Johnson's Labors

In other European countries around this time, dictionaries had been assembled by large committees.

The 40 "immortals" who made up the Académie française took 55 years to produce their French  Dictionnaire. The Florentine Accademia della Crusca labored 30 years on its Vocabolario. In contrast, working with just six assistants (and never more than four at a time), Johnson completed his dictionary in about eight years.

Unabridged and Abridged Editions

Weighing in at roughly 20 pounds, the first edition of Johnson's Dictionary ran to 2,300 pages and contained 42,773 entries. Extravagantly priced at 4 pounds, 10 shillings, it sold only a few thousand copies in its first decade. Far more successful was the 10-shilling abridged version published in 1756, which was superseded in the 1790s by a best-selling "miniature" version (the equivalent of a modern paperback). It's this miniature edition of Johnson's Dictionary that Becky Sharpe tossed out of a carriage window in Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847).

The Quotations

Johnson's most significant innovation was to include quotations (well over 100,000 of them from more than 500 authors) to illustrate the words he defined as well as provide tidbits of wisdom along the way. Textual accuracy, it appears, was never a major concern: if a quotation lacked felicity or didn't quite serve Johnson's purpose, he'd alter it.

The Definitions

The most commonly cited definitions in Johnson's Dictionary tend to be quirky and polysyllabic: rust is defined as "the red desquamation of old iron"; cough is "a convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity"; network is "any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections." In truth, many of Johnson's definitions are admirably straightforward and succinct. Rant, for instance, is defined as "high sounding language unsupported by dignity of thought," and hope is "an expectation indulged with pleasure."

Rude Words

Though Johnson omitted certain words for reasons of propriety, he did admit a number of "vulgar phrases," including  bum, fart, piss, and turd. (When Johnson was complimented by two ladies for having left out "naughty" words, he is alleged to have replied, "What, my dears!

Then you have been looking for them?") He also provided a delightful selection of verbal curios (such as belly-god, "one who makes a god of his belly," and amatorculist, "a little insignificant lover") as well as insults, including fopdoodle ("a fool; an insignificant wretch"), bedpresser ("a heavy lazy fellow"), and pricklouse ("a word of contempt for a tailor").

Barbarisms

Johnson didn't hesitate to pass judgment on words he considered socially unacceptable. On his list of  barbarisms were such familiar words as budge, con, gambler, ignoramus, shabby, trait, and volunteer (used as a verb). And Johnson could be opinionated in other ways, as in his famous (though not original) definition of oats: "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

Meanings

Not surprisingly, some of the words in Johnson's Dictionary have undergone a change in meaning since the 18th century. For example, in Johnson's time a cruise was a small cup, a high-flier was someone who "carries his opinions to extravagance," a recipe was a medical prescription, and a urinator was "a diver; one who searches under water."

Lessons Learned

In the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson acknowledged that his optimistic plan to "fix" the language had been thwarted by the ever-changing nature of language itself:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

Ultimately Johnson concluded that his early aspirations reflected "the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer." But of course Samuel Johnson was more than a dictionary maker; he was, as Burchfield noted, a writer and editor of the first rank. Among his other notable works are a travel book, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland; an eight-volume edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare; the fable Rasselas (written in a week to help pay his mother's medical expenses); The Lives of the English Poets; and hundreds of essays and poems.

 

Nonetheless, Johnson's Dictionary stands as an enduring achievement. "More than any other dictionary," Hitching says, "it abounds with stories, arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, and lost myths. It is, in short, a treasure house."

Fortunately, we can now visit this treasure house online. Graduate student Brandi Besalke has begun uploading a searchable version of the first edition of Johnson's Dictionary at johnsonsdictionaryonline.com. Also, the sixth edition (1785) is available in a variety of formats at the Internet Archive.

To learn more about Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary, pick up a copy of Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings (Picador, 2006). Other books of interest include Jonathon Green's Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made (Henry Holt, 1996); The Making of Johnson's Dictionary, 1746-1773 by Allen Reddick (Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Samuel Johnson: A Life by David Nokes (Henry Holt, 2009).