Johnson's Dictionary

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was first published in 1755, and is one of the most famous English dictionaries in history.

A group of London book-sellers had commissioned the dictionary, hoping that a book of this kind would help stabilise the rules governing the English language. In the preface to the book Johnson writes of the 'energetic' unruliness of the English tongue. In his view, the language was a mess that was in desperate need of some discipline: 'wherever I turned my view', he wrote, 'there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.'

Johnson's Language

Here Johnson discusses the way that languages change over time. As much as the lexicographer may want to fix or 'embalm' his language, new words, phrases and pronunciations are constantly appearing, whether brought from abroad by merchants and travellers, extracted from the workrooms of geometricians and physicians, or found in the minds of poets.

Johnson writes: 'When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another...we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.'