The A-Z of Dr Johnson's dictionary

Samuel Johnson defined both language and life in 18th-century England. As his eponymous lexicon marks its 250th anniversary, Christopher Hirst and Geneviÿve Roberts salute a literary hero
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The Independent Online

A is for Argument. For all his legendary conversational powers, Johnson was ruthless in debate. When he once expressed his satisfaction following a social gathering, Boswell bravely replied: "Yes, you tossed and gored several persons." Johnson's friend Oliver Goldsmith described his technique thus: "If he cannot shoot you with his pistol, he will knock you down with the butt-end of it."

B is for Boswell, James (1740-1795). A sexually voracious alcoholic is an unlikely candidate for writing the most famous biography in the English language. Still irresistibly readable, this vast work set the template for the "warts and all" portrait that includes quirky personal detail along with the great achievements of the subject.

C is for Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of (1694-1773). He agreed to be patron of the dictionary but provided no assistance during the 10 years it took to produce. His congratulations to Johnson on the dictionary's publication earned him a magisterial rebuke from the lexicographer: "Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?" This view was underlined by the definition of "Patron" in the dictionary: "Commonly a wretch who supports with indolence and is paid with flattery."

D is for Dictionary. Embarrassed by the lack of an English dictionary, a group of London publishers headed by Longman contracted Samuel Johnson in 1746 to complete the task for £1,575. He estimated the job would take three years. In fact, Johnson's Dictionary did not appear in print until 1755. Though generally admired, Johnson's idiosyncratic definitions were criticised, as were a handful of celebrated inaccuracies. When asked why he defined pastern as "a horse's knee" (it is actually part of the foot), Johnson replied: "Ignorance, madame, pure ignorance."

E is for English brilliance. When a friend pointed out that 45 members of the French Royal Academy had taken 40 years to complete their dictionary, Johnson breezily replied: "Let me see; 40 times 40 is 1,600. As three to 1,600, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman."

F is for Fanny Burney. The novelist, diarist and travel writer was a prominent member of Johnson's circle of female admirers. He met "little Burney" at her father's home in March 1777 and their friendship lasted until his death.

G is for Garrick, David (1717-1779). Within a single decade, the small Staffordshire town of Lichfield produced two of the most celebrated figures of the 18th century. In 1735, David Garrick was among the few pupils to enrol at the unsuccessful academy Johnson set up with his wife's money. In 1737, the two men walked together to London to seek fame and fortune. Both arrived far earlier for Garrick than for Johnson, who was inclined to belittle his friend's acting prowess. However, he penned one of the most famous of all obituaries for Garrick, memorably asserting that his friend's death would "eclipse the gaiety of nations".

H is for Hester Thrale. Following the completion of his edition of Shakespeare in 1766, Johnson lapsed into a severe depression and was virtually adopted by Henry and Hester Thrale.

A wealthy Southwark brewer, Thrale had a country house with an extensive library at Streatham, where Johnson spent much time. The ungainly literary giant fell for the lively and intelligent Hester in a big way. She tended him during illness, possibly even shackling him during brief periods of insanity. Following the death of Henry Thrale in 1781, Hester fell in love with Gabriel Piozzi, an Italian singer. Though their marriage was happy, Johnson could not be reconciled to what he regarded as a betrayal by the second great love of his life.

I is for Integrity. Johnson's view was that: "Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."

J is for Johnson, Samuel (1709-1784). This scruffy, ungainly Black Countryman was a mass of personality oddities, which ranged from a fear of being alone to avoiding treading on pavement cracks. Yet he was a giant of literature in a highly literary era. If he hadn't produced the first great dictionary of English, we would still be reading his Lives of the Poets. He single-handedly wrote two magazines, The Idler and The Rambler, and virtually invented the political column. For all his dark fears, Johnson was extraordinarily brave, whether standing up to a noble thug or separating a pair of fighting mastiffs. Perhaps his most endearing quality was his sense of fun. It is hard to imagine many of today's literary lions suddenly deciding to roll down Greenwich Hill.

K is for Kindness. Johnson wrote: "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good."

L is for London. One of Johnson's most famous quotes: "He who is tired of London is tired of life." Later, he was even more specific: "I think the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross."

M is for Marriage (second). Johnson defined a second marriage as "a triumph of hope over experience". He never remarried.

N is for Network. One of today's most fashionable buzzwords famously confounded Johnson when he attempted a definition: "Anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the inter-sections."

O is for Oats. Johnson scoffed at the fashionable breakfast cereal: "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

P is for Pension. As a lifelong Tory who detested the sinecures the Whig government paid to its supporters, Johnson defined "Pension" thus: "In England, it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his own country." This caused him some embarrassment in 1762 when George III provided him with a pension of £300 a year. For the first time, Johnson did not have to scrape a living on Grub Street, which he defined as "a street ... much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet".

Q is for Quotations. Next only to William Shakespeare, Johnson is believed to be the most quoted of English writers: "Every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language."

R is for Rasselas. Published in 1759, this is Johnson's only extended prose tale. Said to have been written in a week to pay for his mother's burial, it tells the story of a prince of Abyssinia who leaves the Happy Valley of his birth in order to travel with friends through Egypt looking for the happiest mode of life. They never find it.

S is for social success. Despite his shabby dress, Johnson was much in demand as a social acquaintance. Several clubs were created so the most prominent members of literary London could enjoy his conversation. He was even an object of fascination for young ladies, though they observed this odd figure "with more wonder than politeness... as if he had been some monster from the deserts of Africa". Johnson is alleged to have remarked: "Ladies, I am tame. You may stroke me."

T is for Tetty Johnson (1686-1752). Johnson's wife Elizabeth was years older than him and though they were undoubtedly in love at the start of their relationship, they drifted apart as Johnson forged his literary life and she took to the bottle. He scourged himself for not being at her side when she died on a visit to Bromley where her grave can still be seen.

U is for Uncle. Johnson's uncle Andrew was a boxing champion, and taught his nephew to fight. On one occasion Johnson managed to hold his own against four robbers when he was attacked on a London street.

V is for Vinous inebriation. After enjoying a drop for some years, Johnson took to tea as he got older. "Wine makes a man more pleased with himself; I do not say that it makes him more pleasing to others."

W is for the Western Isles. "There are many fine prospects in Scotland ... but the finest sight a Scotsman ever sees is the high road to England." Johnson's views on the Scots were moderated when he discovered that (in general) he very much enjoyed his perilous journey made late in life to the Hebrides with Boswell.

X is for Excise. Johnson's dictionary definition remains unarguable: "A hateful tax collected by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."

X is for Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. This Fleet Street pub was a regular haunt of Johnson, who lived round the corner in Johnson's Court. His favourite chair can still be seen in the pub today.

Z is for Zed. Johnson may have been running out of steam by this stage. His definition reads: "Zed n.s. The name of the letter z. "Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter." (Shakespeare.)"