‘On April 15, 1755 the first great dictionary of English was published. Samuel Johnson’s giant Dictionary of the English Language was an audacious attempt to tame his unruly native tongue. In more than 42,000 carefully constructed entries, Johnson had mapped the contours of the language, combining huge erudition with a steely wit and remarkable clarity of thought’ (Hitchings, 2005, 1)
This was not the first English dictionary( see the British Library Dictionaries and Meanings). However, Johnson was the first to use the literary canonical heavyweights to support his definitions, a tradition that continued with the OED. This was a huge undertaking, almost unimaginable to me today so wedded to computers and the internet. To help with the copying, Johnson did employ, depending on his finances, up to six ‘amanuenses’- ‘a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts. ORIGIN early 17th cent.: Latin, from (servus) a manu ‘(slave) at hand(writing), secretary’ + -ensis ‘belonging to.’‘ (Mac Dictionary)
Johnson’s dictionary shows ‘an intricate portrait of language and social trends. The Dictionary testified to the growth of scientific thought, the influx of foreign influence and the moral and philosophical attitudes of the day. It is the historical record of an age.’ ( Read)
As Hitchings noted many of Johnson’s definitions ‘remind us that he was a poet..’succinct, accurate and elegant’
Particular favorite definitions of mine include the list below and this is where we began in class to day.. with these list of words and their denotations. The students listened to the denotations, felt the language ‘sounded different from today’s language’ but that it was ‘understandable but not quite of the same rhythm’ as one student claimed.
‘Imp‘ is ‘an imp is a puny devil’
‘Giglet’ is ‘a lascivious girl’
‘Conscience‘ is ‘the knowledge or faculty by which we judge of the goodness or wickedness of ourselves ‘
‘Tawdry’ is meanly showy; splendid without cost:fine without grace; showy without elegance’.
‘Bedpresser’ is a heavy lazy fellow’.
‘Witworm’ is ‘one that feeds on wit’.
‘Mushroom’ n.s.’ An upstart: a wretch risen from a dunghill’.
‘Nidget’ n.s. A coward:a dastard’
‘Higgeldy-piggeldy’ : A cant word corrupted from higgle, which denotes any confused mass, as higglers carry a huddle of provisions together’.
‘Dull’: Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.
‘Jobbernowl‘: Loggerhead; blockhead.
Below ‘beetleheaded’, perhaps not so common now as a disparaging term. Bring it back I say!
One version of a story concerning Johnson’s avoidance of ‘naughty’ words has Johnson responding to the woman who expressed her pleasure that his dictionary had avoided these, ’ No Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find however that you have been looking for them.’ (Hitchings,p.130)
Other impressive facts I shared with the students:
There are 42,773 entries in Johnson’s dictionary which was compiled despite personal tragedy, financial anxiety and depression.
When Johnson completed the dictionary it weighed about 20 pounds.
Initially 2,000 copies were printed for a reading public estimated by Edmund Burke to be less than 100,000 (Hitchings, 196)
This dictionary was expensive to produce so the price, when it was published, was set at 4 pound 10 shillings.
Johnson used more than 500 authors to support his quotes.
Johnson came to see that English language cannot be fixed. Johnson writes: ‘When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another…we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.’
Guide to Samuel Johnson, Jack Lynch
We watched this short clip to get a flavour of the brilliance and complexity of Johnson’s achievement:
Better still is to watch the fascinating 59 minute BBC documentary:
And here are the students sharing the denotations after discovering a little about the amazing feat of the ‘harmless drudge’, the remarkable Dr. Johnson:
Here are the students sharing some of Johnson’s denotations:
Then take this quiz here: Guardian :Quiz Samuel Johnson
How many definitions does the active verb “To Take” have?
According to Johnson’s definition, a “Lexicographer” is what?
Continue in this vein and enjoy a small quiz here at Johnson Dictionary online
Read more here about Johnson:
Hitchings, Dr. Jonson’s Dictionary: The book that changed the world (2005) Observer Review