Today in Literary History – April 15, 1755 – Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is published

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was first published on April 15, 1755. Its full title was:

“A DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: IN WHICH The WORDS are deduced from their ORIGINALS, AND ILLUSTRATED in their DIFFERENT SIGNIFICATIONS BY EXAMPLES from the best WRITERS. TO WHICH ARE PREFIXED, A HISTORY of the LANGUAGE, AND An ENGLISH GRAMMAR, By SAMUEL JOHNSON, A.M. In TWO VOLUMES.”

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Popularly know as  Johnson’s Dictionary it wasn’t the first English dictionary but by far the largest at the time, with definitions of 42,773 words. Johnson strove to provide etymologies and various meanings for each word and when possible, quotations illustrating their use. In all, Johnson provided over 140,000 quotations from numerous authors.

It took Johnson and several part time copyists eight years to compile the definitions and quotations. The finished product reflected many of Johnson’s own quirks and prejudices. Most of his definitions were straight-forward, but some displayed Johnson’s famous wit and some were simply strange or at least seem so to us today. Here’s a selection:

Oats: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

Lexicographer: “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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

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.”

Camelopard: “An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick. He is so named, because he has a neck and head like a camel; he is spotted like a pard, but his spots are white upon a red ground. The Italians call him giaraffa.”

Jiggumbob: “A trinket; a knick-knack; a slight contrivance in machinery.”
He rifled all his pokes and fobs
Of gimcracks, whims, and jiggumbobs. Hudibras, p. iii.”

Trolmydames: “Of this word I know not the meaning.”

Johnson preferred English words that were derived from classical languages, Latin or Greek, and held words borrowed from the French language with suspicion and omitted many of them. He also declared rather arbitrarily that “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”

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Still, his Dictionary was a monumental and enormously influential achievement. As Walter Jackson Bate, the literary historian and author of a biographry of Johnson, wrote Johnson’s Dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time”.

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