Samuel Johnson: How was the first modern English language dictionary created?

Dr Johnson is celebrated in a Google Doodle 

Monument to the English scholar Samuel Johnson in Market Street, Lichfield
Monument to the English scholar Samuel Johnson in Market Street, Lichfield

Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr Johnson, was a writer, poet, and essayist, and is credited with being one of the most quoted people in the English language after Shakespeare. But he is best known for the scholarly feat of compiling the first modern English language dictionary, which is celebrated in a Google Doodle marking his 308th birthday.

Why did Johnson write his own dictionary?

In 1746 a group of London publishers commissioned the creation of an English dictionary, in part due to an embarrassing lack of a comprehensive record of the language. According to the British Library, the publishers hoped the dictionary would stabilise the rules of the English language, but Johnson explained in his preface to the final work that language is constantly changing and not possible to “fix”.

How long did it take and how many words did it contain?

Johnson intended to write the dictionary in the space of three years but it took just over eight in total, with the help of six assistants. The dictionary was published in 1755 in two folio volumes, containing over 40,000 words and around 114,000 supporting quotations, providing definitions across every branch of learning, many of which were infused with his own prejudices and enduring wit.

Did any entries get him in trouble?

While Johnson’s dictionary proved to be very popular, it was criticised by many for the way his personality and opinion shone through in particular entries. His entry for the word “oats” repeated a joke that was particularly rude to the Scottish: “Oats: A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

The entry for the word “excise” would have resulted in Johnson being sued by the Commissioners of Excise for defamation had the Attorney General not advised the body to refrain from taking action. The definition read: “Excise: A hateful tax collected by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.”

What are some of his most humorous entries?

“To worm: To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.”

“Patron: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.”

“Stockjobber: A low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares in the funds.”

“Pension: An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.”

“Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

“Dull: Not exhilarating, not delightful: as, ‘to make dictionaries is dull work’.”

Did he get any definitions wrong?

Johnson published a handful of inaccuracies, including the definition of a pastern as “a horse’s knee”. A pastern is the sloping part of a horse’s foot, between the fetlock and the hoof. When asked about how the mistake was made, Johnson replied: “Ignorance, madame, pure ignorance.”

Was this the first English dictionary?

In a word: no. Richard Mulcaster, a headmaster, is credited with writing “Elementarie”, the beginnings of a dictionary, in 1582. It listed around 8,000 words and intended to help stabilise the English language, though it held no definitions. In 1604 Robert Cawdrey published the “Table Alphabeticall”, a list of 3,000 “hard words” with simple definitions.

When was the next dictionary published?

Johnson’s dictionary underwent a number of revisions in its later editions, while others published abridged editions after his death, but the next comprehensive English dictionary was not published until the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928.

Are there any copies of Dr Johnson’s first dictionaries left?

Johnson’s dictionary had a first edition run of 2,000 copies, though only about half of these are accounted for today, according to the museum at Dr Johnson’s house. Two copies are held at the house, the British Library has four copies, while others are held in private collections.

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