1755 - Johnson's Dictionary

Banner image of Johnson's dictionary


Samuel Johnson's 'Dictionary of the English Language' is one of the most famous dictionaries in history. First published in 1755, the dictionary took just over eight years to compile, required six helpers, and listed 40,000 words. Each word was defined in detail, the definitions illustrated with quotations covering every branch of learning. It was a huge scholarly achievement, a more extensive and complex dictionary than any of its predecessors - and the comparable French Dictionnarre had taken 55 years to compile and required the dedication of 40 scholars.

Literary quotations

In all, there are over 114,000 quotations in the dictionary. Johnson was the first English lexicographer to use citations in this way, a method that greatly influenced the style of future dictionaries. He had scoured books stretching back to the 1500s, often quoting from those thought to be 'great works' such as Milton or Shakespeare. Thus the quotations reflect his literary taste and his rightwing political views. However, if Johnson didn't like a quotation, or if a phrase didn't convey the exact meaning he required, he did not hesitate to chop, twist around, or rewrite a few words - Johnson famously scribbled all over his books, underlining, highlighting, altering and correcting the words, much to the horror of acquaintances who had lent him their books!

A tangled mess

A group of London book-sellers had commissioned Johnson's 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 in a mess, and 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.' However, in the process of compiling the dictionary, Johnson recognised that language is impossible to fix, because of its constantly changing nature, and that his role was to record the language of the day, rather than to form it.

Johnson's personal touch

Even so, many of Johnson's definitions bear the mark of a rather pompous man (but also quite a humorous one). Many of the words he included were incomprehensible to the average reader - long words such as ‘deosculation’, ‘odontalgick’. He is even believed to have made up some words. His definition of oats is very rude to the Scots. He defines the word as 'A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.' Johnson was criticised for imposing his personality on to the book. However, his dictionary was enormously popular and highly respected for its epic sense of scholarship.