Dictionary Johnson: The Man and His Masterpiece

As an English Language major, it was to learn more about Samuel Johnson the lexicographer, as well as his Dictionary of the English Language, that I initially decided on taking the individual author course which bears his name (as well as that of his now-famous biographer). However, as the course progressed and I found the Dictionary to have maintained its place of prominence in my admiration for this great man, I nevertheless perceived the task of writing about it as something more than daunting: like the mountain climber who possesses neither rope nor piton, I was ill-equipped to take on a meaningful examination of that monolithic work. It was not until learning of Frederick Pottle's three-point formula of literary criticism that I realized I had at my disposal the perfect method with which to confront and examine Johnson's Dictionary. Therefore, I shall proceed in this brief monograph to examine the questions of just what Samuel Johnson was trying to achieve with his Dictionary, how well he achieved it, and, finally, whether it was worth it.

Before going into Johnson's intentions, however, it is important to give a little background first, in order to place Johnson's achievement in its proper historical perspective. The first work designed specifically for the use of English-speaking people to find listings and definitions of English words was Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabetical (1604). This work was formulated for the purpose of defining only difficult words in the language and was by no means intended to be comprehensive. Others were to follow, including Bullokar's An English Expositour (1616), Cockerams's English Dictionarie (1623), Blount's Glossographia (1656), Phillip's New World of English Words (1658), Cocker's English Dictionary (1704), and, finally, Nathan Bailey's two offerings, the Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721) and the Dictionarium Britannicum (1730). The latter, containing some 48,000 entries, was to be Johnson's basis for his own dictionary. (While Johnson's Dictionary contains only 40,000 words, one might well wonder what became of the other 8,000 contained in Bailey; Johnson addresses these omissions in the preface to the Dictionary, going to great lengths to enumerate the various types of words he considered inappropriate, including technical terms, foreign words, and, the bane of his linguistic existence, "cant words.")

It is significant to note that by continental standards, mid-eighteenth century England was far behind the times, linguistically speaking. The Tuscan dictionary of the Accademia della Crusca, the standing Italian dictionary, had appeared in 1612, and the dictionary of the Academie Francaise was out as of 1694. It is even more amazing to consider that one man set out to do the work that had taken whole national think-tanks decades to achieve. (Johnson's well-know quip about the ratio of Englishmen to Frenchmen would prove to be more than mere boast, as generations of Englishmen were soon to find out. Indeed, upon completion, David Garrick was quoted as exclaiming that Johnson had "beat forty Frenchmen and will beat forty more!" [1])

In addressing the question of Johnson's intentions regarding his Dictionary, we must first debunk one of many popular misconceptions held by the general public, as well as linguistic and literary scholars who should know better, namely that Johnson was trying to "fix" the English language. Indeed, while his original Plan of an English Dictionary of 1747 is full of prescriptive sentiment, indicating that he was determined to set English in stone once and for all, in fact, through the very process of writing the mighty tome, Johnson became far more modern in his awareness of language. While it was, no doubt, his personal dream to have his fellow Englishmen speak and write correctly, the lesson of his own dictionary taught him the difference between stability and stagnation, as well as imparting a deeper understanding of the living, fluid quality of his native tongue. He declared as much in the preface to the Dictionary when he wrote, "Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design will require that I should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify." [2] This is not to say that he had thrown up his hands and fallen in with what in modern parlance would be termed the "descriptive school." He remained extremely conservative in his views on language, as he stated in the very same preface that, "Much less ought our written language to comply with the corruptions of oral utterance, or copy that which every variation of time or place makes different from itself, and imitate those changes which will again be changed, while imitation is employed in observing them." [3]

As we have seen, Johnson's intention in writing his Dictionary was an evolving one, changing over the course of the writing itself. The final version of it can be seen in the preface to the abridged edition, published in 1756, wherein he states, "I lately published a Dictionary like those compiled by the academies of Italy and France, for the use of such as aspire to exactness of criticism, or elegance of style." [4] It is this two-fold intention, the creation of a dictionary to serve the pursuits of criticism and style, that has, as I shall endeavor to prove in the summation of this paper, been gloriously and effectively realized.

At this point, I think it important to look in on Johnson's garret at Number 17 Gough Square to get an idea of just how the Dictionary took shape. One might assume that Johnson simply grabbed his copy of Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum and started revising. In fact, the initial preparation was quite different and, not to be too redundant, classically Johnsonian: He read. Johnson pored over all the works of the great English authors; Shakespeare, Milton, Watts, Spenser, Baker, Pope, Hooker, Boyle, Dryden, Addison, Bacon, Swift, Locke, and many more, men of science as well as men of letters, and wherever he found a passage that seemed to illustrate a particular word, he marked it, citing the word's first letter in the margin, and passed the book to one of his six amanuenses. (A facsimile of a page so marked is attached to the end of this paper.) The amanuensis would then copy the quotations onto slips of paper, cross off the letter from the margin of the marked page, and paste the quotation slip onto a larger sheet of paper allotted to the word in question. The idea was to have a barrage of quotations for each word with which to supplement a given definition. In this way, the reader would be provided with a specific definition (or, as was often the case, a list of definitions), as well as having the opportunity of seeing the word used in context; not only that, but the reader could enjoy the luxury of seeing how a given word had been utilized by one of the great writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was Johnson's unique contribution to lexicography: the addition of illustrative quotations, some 114,000 in all. (It should be noted that the modern use of quotations, such as in the Oxford English Dictionary, has become more a method of showing the historical evolution of a given word, while Johnson's intention was more that of displaying an exactness and excellence of usage.) Once the bulk of quotations had been compiled, the making of master word lists was taken up, consulting Bailey as well as others. Definitions were composed, etymologies appended, and additional quotes added.

The enormity of the task is beyond belief, and one might think that spending nine years with six amanuenses, five of whom were Scots, would have been too much for the supposedly Scot-hating Johnson. Here again we find the truth underlying the myth, in this case the erroneous conception of a prejudiced Samuel Johnson. The amanuenses Johnson employed were Shiels, the two Macbean brothers, Stewart, Maitland, and Peyton, the latter being the single Englishman. Over time, Johnson came to look on these men as not just mere employees, but as dependents, supporting Stewart, who died during the process, Shiels, who died shortly afterward, as well as literally burying Peyton. The much-quoted joke definition for "oats" was designed more as a good-natured jibe toward the Scots on his team than some arrogant slap at Scotland in general. This is not to imply that Johnson and his assistants enjoyed a non-stop, rosy joviality; there was plenty of backbiting, gossiping, time-wasting and trips to the pub when the boss was away. But the fact remains that Johnson treated these men, Scots though they were, with the same kindness he reserved for all common people.

Much criticism has been leveled at Johnson for the supposed inferiority of his etymologies, and, here again, it is my intention to correct the record. Amongst his early detractors was William Smellie, the first editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, who expressed his own misgivings in the entry for "dictionary" in the original 1768 edition. Then, in 1775, John Whitaker, himself a decidedly bad etymologist [4], attacked Johnson's etymologies of Celtic derivatives. 1786 saw Horne Tooke, in The Diversions of Purley, taking aim at Johnson for violating his (Tooke's) own bizarre theory that there should be only one meaning per word. (This torch was picked up and carried as late as 1836 by Tooke's literary disciple, Charles Richardson, in his A New Dictionary of the English Language.) In 1807, for reasons of his own, Noah Webster climbed on the Johnson-bashing bandwagon. Macaulay called him a "wretched etymologist." Even the supreme acolyte, James Boswell, stated, "The etymologies, though they exhibit learning and judgement, are not, I think, entitled to the first praise amongst the various parts of this immense work." [5] Wherefore this veritable plethora of condemnation?

Before answering this question, we must look into the mind of Samuel Johnson, for, as he had for everything else, he had formulated his own philosophy regarding etymology. For one thing, since Latin was still much in use, he saw little need to fill in every variation between a Latin derivative and its English counterpart. Secondly, his brevity in etymological entries stemmed from a combination of his own staunch nationalism and an empirical, Occam's Razor-type approach which precluded undue concern for the various continental forms of the Latin derivatives.

It is important to note that much of the earlier criticism came from direct comparisons of Johnson's Dictionary and Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum; however, the latter's so-called "etymologies" were in fact no more, in most cases, than wholesale listings of every possible form of a given word from all of the various continental languages, with little concern for what Johnson would have termed "concatenation." (Even the use of the term "etymological" in the title of Bailey's earlier work was more a selling point and an excuse to publish a new dictionary than a genuine innovation in the science of lexicography. [6]) In addition, whenever Johnson felt that such concatenations were significant, his usual brevity was breached and a more complete etymology was provided. Finally, it must be realized that Johnson's Dictionary was, in fact, written some 250 years ago, and it is inappropriate to judge it by modern standards of language study; taken in context, it remains the outstanding work of its century.

Having looked at a bit of lexicographical history, Johnson's evolving intentions for his Dictionary, his methods of execution, his innovative use of quotations, his working relationship with his crew of amanuenses, and his theory of etymology, as well as clearing up a few popular misconceptions, it remains for us to ask the final question: Was it worth it? The answer is a resounding and unequivocal YES. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary remained the authoritative work in it's field for a century after it's publication and set the standard by which subsequent dictionaries would be judged. Its importance cannot be understated. To the dilettante, the occasional, much-quoted joke definitions found sprinkled throughout the work, together with the more eccentric characterizations provided by Boswell, might make the Dictionary, as well as its author, seem silly and inconsequential; it is only through depth of examination that we begin to see the real merit of such a phenomenal achievement, and appreciate Johnson for the intellectual giant that he was.

Samuel Johnson was a man of his age. As John Wain puts it, "The eighteenth-century aim was a language which would not seem obsolete in two generations, and this aim was brilliantly achieved." [7] Today we can read Johnson with complete comprehension, and it is this fact which says more for his achievement than any other. Further, this continuity of language carries a greater significance: the continuity of culture. The Dictionary provided for the critic and the stylist of Johnson's day a greatly improved instrument with which to pursue their literary and, as a consequence, cultural goals, a tool to serve the pursuit and ultimate mastery of the English language. It is for this reason that we revere him, respect him, and will not forget him.


[1] Oxford Companion to English Literature, p. 549.
[2] Donald Greene, Samuel Johnson, p. 179.
[3] Oxford Authors Samuel Johnson, p. 310.
[4] Daisuke Nagashima, Johnson the Philologist, p. 149.
[5] Nagashima, op cit., p. 150.
[6] Nagashima, op cit., p. 154.
[7] John Wain, Samuel Johnson, p. 138.


Drabble, Margaret (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford, England, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Fadiman, Clifton (Ed.), The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Harmondsworth, England, Viking Penguin, 1992.

Greene, Donald (Ed.), The Oxford Authors Samuel Johnson, Oxford, England, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Greene, Donald, Samuel Johnson, New York, NY, Twayne Publishers, 1970.

Mc Arthur, Tom (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to the English Language,
Oxford, England, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Nagashima, Daisuke, Johnson the Philologist, Osaka, Japan, Kansai University of Foreign Studies, 1988.

Pyles, Thomas and Algeo, John, The Origins and Development of the English Language, Fort Worth, TX, 1993.

Wain, John, Samuel Johnson, New York, NY, The Viking Press, 1974.

Johnson's London:
Vital Animadversion for the Late Twentieth Century

Of the various poetical works by Samuel Johnson which it has been my pleasure to read, none has resonated quite like London. In musing over why this particular poem, more than Johnson's other, "greater" works, should be so appealing to my disposition, the simple fact occurred to me that the age at which Johnson wrote it, twenty-nine, was the same as mine. Later I found the significance of this observation reinforced by Donald Greene, as he wrote that "the poem is very much a young man's poem, and its charm comes from the youthful exuberance and violence with which the witty invective comes tumbling out, with little discernible attempt at organization."[1] It is precisely this witty invective, presented with such violent vituperation, such exuberant execration, that makes the poem great, and, more specifically, the way these sentiments are aimed at moral corruption: the corruption of the individual, the corruption of the larger society, and, finally, the corruption of the governmental system which rules over that society; all are mercilessly given over to "the snarling Muse." Most importantly, we must observe how much London has to say to us today, in the modern, urban reality of 1993; part of the appeal of literary "imitations" of classical authors in Johnson's day was that they "brought the original up to date, while continually implying that plus ca change, plus c'est la meme


[1] Donald Greene, Samuel Johnson, p. 35.

chose."[2] In examining how London might be applied to the present era, we can see our efforts as yet another phase of this grand concatenation.

Before going into textual details, a few general facts:

Of the various moral corruptions addressed in London, the first


[2] John Wain, Samuel Johnson, p. 86.
[3] J.D. Fleeman (Ed.), Samuel Johnson: The Complete English Poems, p. 196.
[4] Wain, op. cit., p. 87.
[5] J.D. Fleeman, op. cit., p. 196.

to be examined is that of the individual, peccant Londoner. In order to save space, I have affixed a copy of the poem to this essay and shall refer to the text by line numbers. Lines 146-152 show Johnson's disgust at the vulgarities displayed by impudent men of vice. Here we find images of fellows whose concerns seldom go beyond lying and whoring and partaking of snuff, who would presumably offer you their hand after having given their privates a good grope. These charming gentlemen are contrasted by others (153-156, 75-78), more subtle, and for Johnson more threatening, who employ a combination of mendacity and manners to spread their virulent strain of moral impropriety. While Johnson may well be echoing Juvenal's pastoral protagonist in 79-82, the style and content of the sentiments expressed seem uniquely Johnsonian, and one can see how the "imitation" and the authorial intent gel into one harmonious indictment. 87-90 are further proof that "Thales" is indeed an ideological marriage of Umbricius and Johnson himself.

As stated earlier, many of the corruptions described in London are applicable to the modern, urban experience. Of individual corruption, nothing more need be said, beyond Johnson's own assertion that human nature is constant and unchanging; each of us has, at times in our lives, come across such people as described above, as well as (more rarely) men of Johnson's moral calibre. We are essentially, with allowances for technology, the same people as we were in 1738. But what about society as a whole? In comparing 35-38 to the present, it sounds like the same old story; as "Vice and Gain" prevailed over "Science" (that is to say any field of intellectual pursuit) in the 18th century, so they maintain their ascendancy today. Other so-called modern problems in today's urban experience are also addressed such as homelessness (190-193), inner-city violence (224-235), and the evils of poverty brought on by unbridled capitalism (176-179). Regarding this last point, it is ironic that Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" theory has prevailed, cited by "modern" free-traders everywhere, regardless of the fact that it has been proven untrue by its very application.

If anything were to prove the marvelous continuity of human nature, it would be the history of statecraft. Here, Johnson's London stands as a veritable catalog of corruption. So many of his attacks on the Walpole-era government of England reflect very real criticisms heard today. Take, for example, our own contemporary judicial process, and compare it to 248-253; although we seem to have gotten away from "Special Juries," the rest of the passage provides an up-to-date assessment of our current criminal justice system. The simple fact of graft is eloquently rendered in 198-199, "The Groom" representing (I assume) Walpole, while "his Lord" is, of course, George II. How far, in the light of Congressional scandals, have we really come in 250 years? (Walpole himself said that every man has his price, and in the council chambers and legislative houses of every world government today, truer words were never spoken.) Even the ravages of the Reagan-Bush era can be succinctly summed up in 158-159 with absolutely no comment.

It has been said time and again, arguably or not, that what makes a work of literature great is that it contains a timeless, universal quality. If this be indeed the measure by which we are to evaluate literature, then London is truly great, for it speaks with force and purpose to those urban problems which still remain to be resolved, as well as offering, in the larger image of Samuel Johnson, the model on which to base our endeavors.


"It is indeed easy to conceive why any fashion should become popular by which idleness is favoured, and imbecility assisted."

---Rambler #121, 1751

"She was, indeed, not without the power of thinking, but was wholly without the exertion of that power, when either gaity or splendour played on her imagination."

---Rambler #18, 1750

"The chief security against the fruitless anguish of impatience must arise from the freequent reflection on the wisdom and goodness of the God of nature, in whose hands are riches and poverty, honour and disgrace, pleasure and pain, and life and death."

---Rambler #32, 1750

"It is very natural for young men to be vehement, acrimonious, and severe. For, as they seldom comprehend at once all the consequences of a position, or perceive the difficulties by which cooler and more experienced reasoners are restrained from confidence, they form their conclusions with great precipitance."

---Rambler #114, 1751

"Every language has its anomalies, which, though incovenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things...but every language has likewise its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe."

"[There exist many defects in spelling due to oral traditions]...but many words have likewise been altered by accident, or depraved by ignorance, as the pronunciation of the vulgar has been weakly followed; and some still continue to be variously written, as authors differ in their care or skill."

"Much less ought our written language to comply with the corruptions of oral utterance, or copy that which every variation of time or place makes different from itself, and imitate those changes which will again be changed, while imitation is employed in observing them."

"Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote."

"Obsolete words are admitted, when they are found in authors not obsolete, or when they have any force or beauty that may deserve revival."

"Names, therefore, have often many ideas, but few ideas have many names."

"Commerce, however necessary, however lucrative, as it depraves the manners, corrupts the language."

"[Business jargon] will not always be confined to the exchange, the warehouse, or the port, but will be communicated by degrees to other ranks of the people, and be at last incorporated with the current speech."

"The chief glory of every people arises from its authors."

---From the Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

"As gold which he cannot spend will make no man rich, so knowledge which he cannot apply will make no man wise."

---Idler #84, 1759

"His opinion was that men had only the appearance of animal life, being really vegetables with a power of motion."

---Idler #22, 1758

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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