10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary

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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
      Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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      10 Operatic Facts About "Bohemian Rhapsody"

      Queen Official via YouTube
      Queen Official via YouTube

      "Bohemiam Rhapsody," Queen’s classic "mock opera," was released on October 31, 1975. Though the song was met with skepticism when played for preview audiences, it ended up spending nine weeks at number 1 on the UK charts in 1976. It currently ranks as the third best-selling UK single of all time (behind Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute “Candle in the Wind” and Band Aid’s holiday-made “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004. Here are some facts about the iconic song to consider the next time you’re hitting those “Galileo” high notes along with your car radio.

      1. Freddie Mercury started writing "Bohemian Rhapsody" in 1968.

      The story of “Bohemian Rhapsody”—or “Bo Rhap,” as it is known by Queen fans—began in 1968, when Freddie Mercury was a student at London’s Ealing Art College. He had come up with an opening line—“Mama, just killed a man”—but no melody. Because of the Old West feel (in his mind) to the lyric, he referred to his work in progress as “The Cowboy Song.”

      2. Queen's producer was skeptical of "Bohemian Rhapsody"'s opera-like composition.

      Roy Thomas Baker, who produced the band’s A Night at the Opera album, first heard the framework for "Bohemian Rhapsody" when he picked Freddie up at his Holland Road flat in London one evening before going out to dinner. Freddie led him to the piano to play the song he’d been working on. As Baker recalled of the scene, Freddie played the opening ballad section of the tune then stopped and exclaimed, “And this is where the opera section comes in!” Baker laughed at the time, but when Freddie came to the studio days later armed with various pieces of paper with notes and doodles outlining his composition, the producer determined to use all his talent and equipment to capture Mercury’s vision on tape.

      3. Freddie Mercury was always adding another "Galileo."

      In 1975, “state-of-the-art” recording meant 24-track analog tape. The harmonies on the opera section (all sung by Mercury, drummer Roger Taylor, and guitarist Brian May) required 180 separate overdubs, and eventually the tape had been run over the recording heads so many times that it became almost transparent. In the end it took three weeks (Mercury was always adding “another ‘Galileo,'” Baker explained) and five different studios to complete the track.

      4. Elton John thought "Bohemian Rhapsody" was too "weird" for the radio.

      Prior to its release, Queen’s manager played a rough mix of the song to one of his other high-profile clients, Elton John, to get his opinion. “Are you f*cking mad?” was the singer’s reaction after listening to the nearly six-minute song. His verdict: it was too long and too “weird” for radio.

      5. The huge success of "Bohemian Rhapsody" is due in part to one DJ.

      “Bohemian Rhapsody” owes part of its success to British DJ Kenny Everett, who had a popular morning radio show on Capital Radio. In early October 1975, EMI was still pressuring Queen to release “You’re My Best Friend” as the first single from A Night at the Opera. Everett got his hands on an early pressing of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with strict instructions not to broadcast it (wink, wink). Somehow, strictly by accident (his finger must have slipped), he played the song 14 times over the course of two days. Callers flooded the radio station and local record stores with requests for the song, so the suits at EMI relented and released the magnum opus as a single.

      6. Promoting "Bohemian Rhapsody" proved problematic.

      After it was decided to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single, the band was faced with a bit of a dilemma: At the time in England, it was traditional for bands to appear on shows like Top of the Pops to promote their latest hits. But Queen was scheduled to begin a tour soon, plus (as Brian May admitted) they’d feel self-conscious miming to the operatic section. They solved the problem by filming a promotional film, or “pop promo” as it was called in the industry lingo of the time, that could be shown not only on UK music shows, but also around the world in other markets, such as American Bandstand.

      7. It took just under four hours to film the video for "Bohemian Rhapsody."

      The band arrived at Elstree Studios (using the same stage they were using to rehearse for their upcoming tour) at 7:30 in the morning, and were finished and relaxing at the local pub by 11:30 a.m. The total cost of the video was £4500, or about $2025. This was the first music video directed by Bruce Gowers, and the success of that clip eventually prompted him to move to Hollywood, where he went on to direct such TV programs as the MTV Movie Awards, the Primetime Emmy Awards, the People's Choice Awards and the first 10 seasons of American Idol.

      8. The "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene in Wayne's World took 10 hours to film.

      The classic scene in the 1992 film Wayne’s World, on the other hand, took 10 hours to film. Dana Carvey didn’t learn the lyrics ahead of time, and if you watch closely you can see that he’s often just randomly moving his mouth while “singing” along. (And all the actors complained of neck pain after headbanging through so many takes.)

      9. A symphonic gong was added to Roger Taylor's drum kit for "Bohemian Rhapsody."

      When the band launched their tour to support A Night at the Opera, Roger Taylor’s drum kit was outfitted with a 60-inch symphonic gong (which had to be cleaned, packed, and set up on each date) just so he could strike that final note in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

      10. A blue vinyl pressing of "Bohemian Rhapsody" is worth more than $5000.

      The Holy Grail in terms of Queen collectibles is a 7-inch limited edition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that was pressed in blue vinyl. In the summer of 1978, EMI Records won the Queen’s Award To Industry For Export Achievement (that’s “Queen” as in Her Majesty Elizabeth II). The label’s primary reason for sales in far-reaching territories that lacked manufacturing facilities was Queen, as in the band. To celebrate their prestigious award, EMI pressed 200 copies of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in blue vinyl, each of which was hand-numbered. Numbers one through four went to the band members, of course, while other low-numbered copies were given to friends and family members. Bona fide copies from this original pressing currently sell for upwards of $5000.

      Additional sources: Queen: As It Began, by Jacky Smith and Jim Jenkins Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen, by Mark Blake Queen: The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody
      The Making of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’”

      This story has been updated for 2020.