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Book of the Month

April 2007

Samuel Johnson

A Dictionary of the English Language

London 1755

Sp Coll Bi7-a.8-9

This month we take a look at what is widely believed to be the first modern English dictionary, Samuel Johnson's 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. First published in 1755, this dictionary took Johnson and his small team of helpers nine years to compile, and was unsurpassed as a reference work for over a century until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884.

In 1746 Johnson entered into an agreement with a group of London booksellers to write an English dictionary, and began work the same year with only six assistants to aid him. A year later he published a plan for the dictionary in which he outlined his reasons for undertaking the project and explained exactly how he intended to compile his work (see left). Johnson projected that the scheme would take about three years, but he seriously underestimated the scale of the work involved, and in the end it took him three times this length of time to write over 40,000 definitions and select nearly 114,000 illustrative quotations from every field of learning and literature.

Although little is known about how Johnson actually assembled his Dictionary i.e. what sources he used to compile his word list or how he went about selecting the quotations, it has been established that he, like most other lexicographers, relied at least in part on the work of his predecessors. A general history of the English dictionary usually begins with Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604), but it is possible to trace the origins of the dictionary back a lot further than this.

Excerpt from the 'Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language' (Sp Coll Mu51-c.25, pp 4-5)

The first step in the evolution of the dictionary as a form was the gloss. Synonyms would be written in between the lines of text, or in the margins of a page in a manuscript, in order to provide an explanation or definition of any complicated or 'hard' words. These synonyms could be in the same language as the text, or if the text was in a foreign language, they could be in the local vernacular. Before the appearance of dictionaries, people would have annotated texts in such a way not only to define hard words, but also to translate from one language to another; so if one had a text in Latin, the  gloss may consist of either easier Latin synonyms, or words in English (or any other language) which interpret the original. Given that this glossing of texts was a common practice from at least the eighth century onwards, one could collect from a number of texts all the hard words and their synonyms and arrange them in alphabetical order, providing the reader with a list which they could then use for assistance in their future reading. From here on the process takes on a snowball effect: such lists can be continually added to, alterations in definition can be changed and updated, whole contrasting lists can be merged together. Through this method we can see the first semblance of the modern dictionary and we can understand how the earliest lexicographers could form a word list from which to create their tomes.

 Example of a late 15th or early 16th century marginal  gloss
(MS Gen 1671)

Whilst in literature plagiarism is, as one would expect, treated sternly, to the early lexicographer it was a necessary tool for creating the basis of a word list. Johnson, for example, utilized Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum (1730) whilst Bailey called upon John Kersey's Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708). Kersey on the other hand gained much of his word list from John Harris' An Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1704). In this way, the history of the English dictionary can be traced all the way back to Robert Cawdrey's A table Alphabetical (1604), which contained only about 2500 words, compared with the vast 2 volumes and 40,000 words of Johnson's work. However, it should be pointed out that lexicographers from the period did not simply take a predecessors work, add a few words and pass it off as their own; rather they would act more like an editor, amalgamating word lists and adding to it from their own knowledge before carefully revising definitions and etymologies.

Title Page from 'Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language'    (Sp Coll Mu51-c.25)

For nearly a century before Johnson embarked upon his Dictionary there had been a growing feeling within the upper echelons of society that there should be some sort of standardisation within the English language. As far back as 1664, the Royal Society set up a committee "for improving the English tongue" but it was the successful completion of the Dictionaire de l'Académie Française thirty years later, that made the English truly realise the need for a greater study of their own language. From this point onwards many literary figures, including Defoe and Swift, proposed their own ideas and schemes for correcting the English Language but all of these failed in one way or another; it was not until 1747, when Johnson published his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, that the problem finally found someone who had the tenacity to embark upon a project comparable to that of the French Academy.

It is interesting to note that the aims of the booksellers and the aims of the author were very different when embarking upon a project as lengthy and perilous as a dictionary. The leading London booksellers were always open to investment in works that would be popular with the general public, especially dictionaries and encyclopaedias. The reasons for this were twofold: firstly, in the publishing of such a large work it was usually impractical for one booksellers to publish alone, and so they would often form temporary partnerships with each other, thereby sharing the costs and the risks alike; secondly, the copyright of such items usually belonged to the publisher, therefore once the initial outlay had been made to the compiler and the work was finished, booksellers could make massive profits as they no longer had to pay a percentage to the author.

The original idea to undertake an English dictionary was suggested to Johnson by his good friend Robert Dodsley. Although at first Johnson rejected the idea, he eventually decided to take up the project several years later, explaining his reasons for doing so in the preface of the Dictionary (see below). Dodsley, more than just the instigator of the Dictionary, was in fact a lynchpin in the project; as Johnson's friend he knew that he had found someone with the temperament and learning to provide such a work, whilst as a bookseller in London he was able to secure financial backing for the project.  Whilst the booksellers aimed to make large profits from the Dictionary, Johnson also aimed to make some money from the project as he was desperately in need of a financial boost after the failure of his latest project, a new edition of Shakespeare.  Before his Dictionary, Johnson was far from well known; his reputation at the time was limited, largely because most of his work to date had been published anonymously, whilst none of his larger projects outside of journalism had ever come to fruition. Therefore he saw the venture as a way of raising his profile, knowing that even if the Dictionary failed to reach publication, the admirable nature of the work would guarantee the knowledge of his name in literary circles.

Excerpt from the Preface (A2r)

After nine years work Johnson's Dictionary was finally finished in 1755. Although it was nearly identical in style and form to Scott-Bailey's A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, which was published in the same year, the ideas which are inherent in both mainly stem from Johnson. Having published his Plan of a Dictionary eight years beforehand, outlining his radical ideas to include quotations and list all possible definitions of even the simplest word, Johnson had left himself open to having his designs copied. That two such radically new dictionaries should appear in the same year was beyond chance, and only Johnson had made his far-reaching plans public knowledge. In fact, Scott openly acknowledged his indebtedness to Johnson in the preface of his work (see below), although it should be said in the interest of objectivity that Johnson himself obtained much of his word list from Bailey's earlier Dictionarium Britannicum. However, it is testament to Johnson's achievement that his influence can be seen in later editions of works from which he himself had originally borrowed both methods and materials.

Paragraph from the preface of 'A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary' in which Scott acknowledges Johnson as a source.  (Sp Coll RF288, Page 2)

As the rather long winded title intimates, Johnson's work was more than just a dictionary. Bound in two large folio volumes, each the size of a lectern bible, the Dictionary begins with a lengthy 10 page preface in which Johnson explains the content of his work and justifies his word selection. The preface is a fascinating piece of literature in itself, as it gives the reader a unique insight into the mind of both Johnson 'the lexicographer' and Johnson 'the personal man'.

In the passage below, Johnson explains the difficulties he had in forming his word list. He mentions the deficiencies of previous dictionaries and explains that he had to draw from many other sources outside of lexicography, largely from the literature of the preceding centuries. This fact is greatly in evidence when examining the Dictionary as a whole; many of the words are drawn from Shakespeare and Milton, and some come from as far back as Spenser (who died in 1599). The effect of this is twofold: firstly, the Dictionary takes on a very literary feel, as it contains many words which would usually only be found in poetry or drama and were not common to everyday speech; secondly, and rather conversely, it slightly outdates the Dictionary - language at the time changed almost as quickly as it does today, therefore one would assume that drawing much of your wordlist from literature which was up to 200 years old would severely outdate a work. However, it is easy to forget that the use of dictionaries in the mid-eighteenth century was very different to how we use them today. Back then only the upper or middle classes would have been able to afford to buy a copy of Johnson's work, and most would have used it as an educational device i.e. to explain the language of authors such as Shakespeare and Milton. For this reason the Dictionary was, and still is, a great tool in understanding the pre and post restoration literature from which Johnson drew his word list.

Excerpt from the Preface (B1r - B1v)

Further on in the preface Johnson shows his own personal humility when he admits that there are some words which he just could not explain, simply because he didn't understand them (see below). The early lexicographers, by their very nature, were expected to be able to define even the most difficult word, so for Johnson to admit that he could not do this demonstrates a great sense of modesty. However, whilst it goes without saying that difficult words can be hard to understand, they can in fact be very easy to define. The real trouble that the early lexicographers had was in defining the simple words of the language, the words that were used on a daily basis in everyday speech. For example, Johnson defines the difficult sounding 'perspicacious' rather easily as "quicksighted; sharp of sight", whilst for the apparently simple word 'take', he finds a total of 113 different definitions and usages. By the mid-eighteenth century no one had even tried to define all the basic words of the language, so for Johnson to make such a thorough attempt at the first time of asking, and to do so with such a great sense of humility, was a vast achievement.

Excerpt from the Preface (B2r)

Letter 'O' from the Grammar of the English Language (a1v)

Also included in the Dictionary is a Grammar of the English Language. Johnson divided this into four sections: etymology (the study of the origin or history of words), syntax (the grammatical arrangement of words when forming sentences), prosody (the use of speech elements, such as pitch, rhythm and intonation), and perhaps most interestingly, orthography (the study of how sounds are written). Johnson separates his section on orthography into the letters of the alphabet and goes through each one, attempting to pinpoint exact rules of usage. An example of this, the letter 'o', is given opposite. Whilst what Johnson writes is accurate, it is often hard to understand - with so many different and often conflicting rules, it gives the impression that there is very little shape or consistent practice within the language. However, it has to be said that describing pronunciation in the mid-eighteenth century would have been very difficult. The phonetic alphabet (the method by which modern lexicographers transcribe the sounds of the language) did not begin development until 1886. Yet Johnson makes a valiant attempt at explaining pronunciation, by highlighting difficult or tricky words. For example, the word 'bough' one may think would end in a hard f, like 'trough', or have a u sound in the middle, like 'enough', but Johnson explains in his definition (see opposite) that "the gh is mute." However, the more troublesome part of explaining the 'ou' sound is completely ignored, a fact which Johnson accounts for in his Grammar of the English Language, stating that sometimes "use only can teach." Although Johnson's explanations of usage and pronunciation were not immediately complete or perfect, they certainly were a good attempt at clarifying one of the most difficult concepts of language, and were far and beyond what any previous lexicographer had attempted.

Definition of 'Bough' (3K2v)

Definition of 'Boy' (3L2v)

Definition of 'Lexicographer' (15I2v)

Definition of 'Oats' (18K1r)

Much has been made of Johnson's humorous definitions, a few of which are shown here, but it is important to realise that these total but a handful in the great body of the work.  Johnson received much criticism at the time for including such definitions in his Dictionary, as it was felt that humour held no place in such a work, but today we merely accept these entries as examples of the author's great wit. It is also easy to laugh at the verbose manner in which Johnson defines some of his simpler words, 'cough' and 'network' being celebrated examples, but on the whole he should be praised for not avoiding the task like the vast majority of his predecessors.

Definition of 'Network' (18D1r)

Definition of 'Cough' (5S2v)

Definition of 'Tory' (26Q2v)

On occasions Johnson allows his personal attitudes to enter the Dictionary. From a comparison of the definitions of 'Tory' and 'Whig', it is easy to see where Johnson's own obligations lie. Whilst his opening bracketed statement concerning a Tory (left) says more about his views on the Irish than his political allegiance, it is the flippant and insultingly short definition of a Whig (below) that truly belies his beliefs. To be called a faction in the mid-eighteenth century was, by Johnson's own definition, to be tumultuous and dissentious.
Yet it is also important to take into account the quotation that comes with each definition, as Johnson intended the two to be read together and hoped that they would complement each other. In this manner, many critics have claimed that the definition of Whig was not intended to be insulting, but rather exists purely to direct the reader to the quotation which follows, in this case a lengthy explanation of how the word came into use. Johnson hoped that whilst his definitions would educate people in the intricacies of the English language, the accompanying citations would serve as a form of moral education.

Definition of 'Whig' (30O2r)

One definition, that of the word 'excise' (see opposite), nearly ended up with Johnson being sued for defamation. When the Commissioners of Excise read the definition they contacted the Attorney General, asking if such a statement was not libellous. Shortly, William Murray answered that he believed that the statement did indeed constitute defamation, but suggested that they should give Johnson the opportunity to change his definition before pursuing legal action. This the Commissioners did, but Johnson stood firm and refused to alter his work, and eventually the same definition was published in later editions. However, for some unknown reason no legal action was ever brought against him, although there is evidence to suggest that the Commissioners did keep watching to see if the statement was ever altered.

Definition of 'Excise' (8L1v)

Review by Adam Smith from the 'Edinburgh Review' (Jan - June 1755) (Sp Coll Mu42-i.16, Page 62)

Upon its publication Johnson's Dictionary received mostly complimentary criticism. Journals such as the Gentleman's Magazine, the Monthly Review and the Edinburgh Review dedicated vast amounts of space to providing readers with a full account of the intricacies of the work, some of which lasted for more than 30 pages. The latter of these periodicals contained a balanced review penned (anonymously at the time) by Adam Smith (see left). Whilst he begins by heavily complimenting both the work and its author, Smith soon goes on to air his two main objections, namely that the work did not go far enough in abolishing foreign words which had recently come into common usage, and that it was not "sufficiently grammatical". Smith cites definitions of the words 'but' and 'humour' before giving examples of how Johnson might have given fuller explanations of these terms. However, it should be said that if Johnson had provided such extensive definitions it would have required adding a third volume to the Dictionary, a notion which would have been both costly and impractical.
As the Eighteenth Century rolled on and later editions of the Dictionary were published, the reviews of the work tended to get worse. Perhaps the most brutal attack came in a collection of ancient Scottish verses, which were later reprinted in a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine of April 1800. The author suggested that Johnson did not know "what he ought to have studied before he wrote a Dictionary; much less how to write a Dictionary itself." He continued with his rampage claiming that "Any schoolmaster might have done what Johnson did. His Dictionary is merely a glossary to his own barbarous work." Such criticism was easy to fathom for those who sought things to attack: for some the definitions were seen as being overly simple and short, whilst for others they were too complicated; many believed that the quotations were irrelevant to the purpose of a dictionary, whilst some thought that such an idea was wonderful, but that Johnson had cited the wrong authors. However, these examples represent only a small percentage of the total number of reviews. Today we accept that the definitions are in fact the main strength of the Dictionary, whilst the quotations serve to morph the work into an extensive anthology of Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century English literature.

In style and efficacy the Dictionary was far and above anything that had previously been published in the English language and was so for over a century after its publication. It is very difficult to sum up the accomplishment of Johnson in compiling such an extensive work with so little help, in such a comparatively brief period of time. Yet of all the reviews and criticism surrounding the Dictionary in the mid-eighteenth century, the person who perhaps sums up the achievement best, is Johnson himself (see right).

Anecdote from 'The life of Samuel Johnson' (Sp Coll RQ 1976, Page 164)


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Toby Hanning (Graduate Trainee on placement in Special Collections) April 2007