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A Dictionary of the English Language

A Dictionary of the English Language: A Triumph

Title Page of the First Volume of Johnson's Dictionary, Notice 'English Language' and 'Samuel Johnson' in red. - Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/71/Johnson_Dictionary2.jpg
Title Page of the First Volume of Johnson’s Dictionary, Notice ‘English Language’ and ‘Samuel Johnson’ in red – Image Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/71/Johnson_Dictionary2.jpg

260 years ago, on 15 April 1755, a Dictionary of the English Language was published. It was a monumental undertaking for one man to do but Samuel Johnson succeeded and with great results and critical acclaim. A group of publishers first approached Johnson in 1746, with the idea of creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. Following this, a contract with William Strahan and associates worth 1,500 guineas, was signed on the morning of 18 June 1746. At this time, Johnson was penniless, 1,500 guineas equated to around £1,575, equivalent to about £210,000 in today’s economy. Johnson took nearly nine years to complete the work, although he originally claimed he could have finished it in three. It was an enormous task, especially if you consider his disadvantages and circumstances. Remarkably, Johnson finished the work single-handedly, the only assistance he received was of a clerical nature to copy out the illustrative quotations. Six assistant’s were employed by Johnson in Fleet Street from the commission money but even then the main bulk of the work was produced by Johnson alone. It wasn’t until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 173 years later in 1928 when the full dictionary was completed and then republished in ten bound volumes later in the year.

Its Significance

The demand for the book was quite large, towards the mid-eighteenth century, the rise of literacy amongst the general public combined with the technical advances in the mechanics of printing and book biding has allowed books to be more universal for the general public and at reasonable costs relative to a century ago. This boom in printing had demanded a technical guideline for books in the future, one’s which required correct spelling, grammar and definition for future English texts, thus there was a great need for an authoritative dictionary of the English language.

The Dictionary

The dictionary was actually somewhat large and very expensive. Accordingly, the pages were 18 inches (46cm) tall and nearly 20 inches (50cm) which is like a broadsheet newspaper. The book was made out of the finest quality paper available and therefore came to an enormous price tag of £1,600, even more than Johnson was actually paid to the write the book and in today’s money that is roughly £212,000.

Noted from the text itself, the book isn’t as formal as one would expect, Johnson’s personality and humour can even be read through the book, something viewed as impossible in the modern standards for a text so plain and abstract. For example, on the definition accompanying the entry ”Lexicographer”, it read ”a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the significance of words.”

Even more amazingly is some of the entries, especially vague verbs so commonly used in everyday life have such substantial descriptions, definitions, examples and illustrations to demonstrates its many uses. For example, the entry for ”Take” had 134 definitions, totalling around 8000 words over 5 pages (Hitchings: 2005, p. 87).

Reception & Influence

Initial reception of the dictionary was astounding, universal acclaim went to the text itself as well as to Johnson on the task of completing it, the book contained 42,773 entries with many entries spreading over several pages, illustrating the extent of the task. The book was so closely associated with Johnson that is was usually referred to, and labelled as Johnson’s dictionary, his dictionary, his property and his monument. Later on, criticism of the dictionary did arise, especially some regarding the definitions and origins of the work to mainly be compiled from guesswork on Johnson’s behalf, therefore illustrating his tampered etymology, much of his influence came from classic learning to which he point to Greek or Latin for the origins of the words and their spelling.

Although there was some criticism, Johnson was well respected for the performing such a substantial task, one that I cant even comprehend, I wouldn’t know where to start, okay that sounds stupid, A… But to write such a lengthy piece takes some talent and persistence and it placed Johnson in history as a great lexicographer. In Britain, acclaim was universal, the dictionary paved the way for future dictionaries, setting the stage and methodology for dictionaries should be wrote and the structure used, future lexicographers have worked under Johnson’s shadow, and remains to be strongly regarded as a great influence by current scholars and lexicographers such as Countdown’s Susie Dent. Eventually every British household would have access to the book, and influence even spread to the United States, and was just as well received and established their, becoming the staple of English language throughout the English speaking world.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Portrait of Samuel Johnson - Source: http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/Images/PCF%20Johnson1%20334.jpg
Portrait of Samuel Johnson – Image Source: http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/Images/PCF%20Johnson1%20334.jpg

Samuel Johnson was a historical figure who I personally have quite a large interest and admiration for, to live through life with so many disadvantages and struggles, and yet to produce such a monumental piece of literature mainly by himself is a task almost all of us could not comprehend. France’s Dictionnarre had taken 40 scholars 55 years to write and yet Johnson worked doggedly, ”with little assistance from the learned and without any patronage of the great”. (C. Carter, http://moneyweek.com/15-april-1755-samuel-johnson-publishes-his-dictionary/ – Accessed 15/04/2015). Johnson experienced medical issues throughout his life, he was beset when his beloved wife Elizabeth Porter died in 1752 and also experienced natural issues of the task from the changing aspects of the English language which he has to restore and track, a problem which Johnson blamed the traders of the British empire for:

”Commerce, however necessary, however lucrative, as it deprives the manners, corrupts the language, they that have frequent intercourse with strangers, to whom they endeavour to accommodate themselves, must in time learn a mingles dialect, like the jargon which serves the traffickers on the Mediterranean and Indian coasts.” (C. W. Eliot: 1909)


I wrote this article to celebrate the anniversary of this great historical work and the extent of the work in terms of how it was ever created. Johnson’s dictionary carried a legacy and survived as the main written dictionary for the English language for nearly two centuries. Literary critic and biographer, Walter Jackson Bate wrote of the dictionary that is ”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” (1998). I personally have a digital copy of the dictionary so I can gather information on the language used in 18th century Britain, and trending aspects illustrated by Johnson, something I find very interesting.

I will write a biographical article of Samuel Johnson sometime in the future, this article is mainly related to the significance of a Dictionary of the English Language. If people are interested in reading a detailed biography of Samuel Johnson with some snazzy and weird quirks of his life then please let me know at historybuff2112@gmail.com 🙂

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