Thursday, April 15, 2010

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language

April 15 is not just Tax day in the US. It is also the birthday of an interesting dictionary. Enjoy some trivia about Mr. Johnson's efforts.

Published on 15 April 1755 and written by Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language is among the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

Calls and proposals for a new dictionary had been made for decades by those who wanted to make fast the English language. A group of London booksellers (including Robert Dodsley and Thomas Longman) contracted Johnson in June, 1746 to write a dictionary for the sum of 1500 Guineas (£1,575).

Johnson took nearly nine years to complete the work he expected to be finished in three years. Remarkably, he did so single-handedly, with only clerical assistance to copy out the illustrative quotations that he had marked in books. Johnson wrote several revised editions during his life.

Johnson's dictionary was prepared at 17 Gough Square, London, an eclectic household, between the years of 1746 and 1755. By 1747 Johnson had written his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, which spelled out his intentions and proposed methodology for preparing his document. He clearly saw benefit in drawing from previous efforts, and saw the process as a parallel to legal precedent (possibly influenced by Cowell):

"I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words."

Unlike most modern lexicographers, Johnson introduced humor or prejudice into quite a number of his definitions. Among the best known are:

* "Excise: 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"

* "Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words"

* "Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"

A much less well-known example is::

* "Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman"

On a more serious level, Johnson's work showed a heretofore unseen meticulousness. Unlike all previous proto-dictionaries that had come before, painstaking care went into the completeness when it came not only to "illustrations" but to definitions as well:

* The word "turn" had 16 definitions with 15 illustrations
* The word "time" had 20 definitions with 14 illustrations
* The word "put" ran more than 5,000 words spread over 3 pages
* The word "take" had 134 definitions, running 8,000 words, over 5 pages

The original goal was to publish the dictionary in two volumes: A-K and L-Z, but that soon proved unwieldy, unprofitable, and unrealistic. Subsequent printings ran to four volumes; even these stacked one on top of the other stood 10 inches tall, and weighed in at nearly 21 pounds. In addition to the sheer physical heft of Johnson's dictionary, came the equally hefty price: £4/10/-. (equivalent to £675 in 2005). So discouraging was the price that by 1784, thirty years after the first edition was published, when the dictionary since run through five editions, only about 6,000 copies were in circulation - an average sale of 200 books a year for thirty years.

The dictionary is heavily featured in the Ink and Incapability episode of Blackadder the Third. Among other things this episode contains a joke about the dictionary not including the word Sausage. In fact, the word Sausage indeed does not appear in the dictionary - Saucisse and Saucisson do, although both only in a military sense. Unsurprisingly, the dictionary also does not contain the word Aardvark.


  1. And...the first editon of Noah Webster's Dictionary was published in 1884. These linguists are very spring-oriented!

  2. And, on April 14, 1828, the first edition of Noah Webster's Dictionary was published. Tremendous focus on spring by these linguists!