Mental Floss
LANGUAGE

10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary

Paul Anthony Jones
Samuel Johnson.
Samuel Johnson. / Culture Club/GettyImages
facebooktwitterreddit

World Dictionary Day takes place on October 16, the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, whose enormous, two-volume An American Dictionary of the English Language—published in 1828, when Webster was 70 years old—established many of the differences that divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson 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. Here are 10 facts you should know 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. (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—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 (including London, published anonymously in 1738), 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 took 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. The dictionary took more than eight years to write.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: 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 1500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) in 2017.

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, words found 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: The definition for ruse notes that it was “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse was 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. Johnson poked fun at his own occupation.

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

A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.

facebooktwitterreddit