Although not the first English dictionary, it remained the definitive and most widely consulted one for over a century. Even after being upstaged by the Oxford Dictionary in later times, many of its definitions and quotations have remained in wide use. This article discusses a brief history about Samuel Johnson and his dictionary.
15 April is the anniversary of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary of The English Language. It has been commemorated by the British Royal Mint by the issue of a special set of 50p coins, and by the book ‘The Extraordinary Story Of The Book That Defined The World’ by Henry Hitchings.
Samuel Johnson is perhaps one of the most widely known and influential figures of English literature, thanks to both his ‘Life of the English Poets’ and his own famous biography ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’, written by his close friend James Boswell.
The house where he was born in―on 7 September 1709―still stands on Breadmarket Street, Lichfield, Staffordshire, and is now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. It was here that his love affair with the English language began. His father was a bookseller, and so he was exposed to a literary atmosphere from his earliest years. Being around books made reading a favorite past-time, and proceeding from reading to writing was a short, natural step for him.
Unfortunately, his father’s book-selling business was not a very financially successful one, and Johnson’s childhood was marked with serious brushes with poverty. His intelligence and dedication got him a place at Pembroke College, Oxford, but the lack of money made him drop out before getting his degree. Much later, after he had acquired a reputation as a literary doyen, he was awarded an honorary Masters (in 1755) and a Doctorate of Law (in 1775) by Oxford, and a Doctorate of Law (in 1765) by Dublin University.
In the meantime, he went to work as a teacher and journalist, and became a regular contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine. He wrote book reviews and opined on foreign and domestic news. He soon made quite a name for himself, but even so had a rather rough time of it. His financial problems did not ease until 1762 when he was granted an annual pension of £300 by the government.
Johnson also had to contend with ill-health throughout his life. As a child, he had contracted smallpox and scrofula (TB of the lymph nodes) and these had left him blind in one eye and practically deaf in one ear. He also suffered from involuntary convulsions. His general appearance led many first-time acquaintances to take him for an idiot―as the painter William Hogarth famously thought. Of course, his subsequent eloquence soon dispelled that notion. Samuel Johnson was not a defeatist, or a person that sat around enjoying the gloom and doom. He led as active a life as possible for him, regularly participating in swimming, rowing, riding, and walking. He was also a member of a Literary Club that he helped found in 1764, along with other luminaries like James Boswell and Edmund Burke.
In 1735, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter. She was nearly 20 years older than him, but it proved to be a very happy union. They remained devoted to one another until her death in 1752. Johnson never remarried. A second marriage, he said, would be a ‘triumph of hope over experience.’
Johnson began work in 1746 on his famous Dictionary at his Gough Square home. This place still stands, and has also been converted into a Museum.
The work commenced with the financial support of the Earl of Chesterfield, who later lost interest and reneged on the deal. Johnson received a mere £10 from the Earl, and this was perhaps the inspiration behind his dictionary definition of the word ‘Patron’―’Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery’.
Johnson found other backers and continued his work. He had to plow through an enormous range of literary texts, and expressed the experience in the phrase illustrating the word ‘Dull’―’To make dictionaries is dull work’. It took him nine years to finish the first edition of the dictionary. This was six years after the deadline, a deadline that Dr. Johnson had initially promised to meet. On being asked how he was going to finish his English Dictionary in three years when it had taken 40 Frenchmen 40 years to produce the French equivalent, Johnson had announced “Forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”
The First Edition, published in 1755, was a heavy-weight volume containing 2300 pages and 42773 words and 114,000 quotations. There were no entries for the letter X―he claimed there were no English words beginning with X―and Z was defined as ‘Zed n.s. The name of the letter z. Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter. Shakespeare’.
Johnson received £1575 for his work, and the price of the dictionary was £4/10. Five updated editions were published during Johnson’s lifetime, and a sixth after his death. He died on 13 December 1784, and was buried in London’s Westminster Abbey. Although not by any means the first of English dictionaries, it remained the definitive and most widely consulted one for over a century. Even after being upstaged by the Oxford Dictionary in later times, many of its definitions and quotations have remained in wide use.
Nowadays, one would refer to it not just for enlightenment, but also for the entertainment value of some of Dr. Johnson’s personal foibles.
Here are some of his definitions:
‘Oats’ – A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
‘Fireman’ – A man of violent passions.
‘Jogger’ – One who moves heavily and dully.
‘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.
‘Fopdoodle’ – A Fool
‘Jobbernowl’ – A Block Head
‘Dandiprat’ – An Urchin