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 – the comparable French Dictionnaire had taken 55 years to compile and required the dedication of 40 scholars.
A group of London booksellers first commissioned Johnson’s dictionary, as they hoped that a book of this kind would help stabilise the rules governing the English language. In the preface to the book, Johnson explains how he had found the language to be ‘copious without order, and energetick without rules’. In his view, English was in desperate need of some discipline: ‘wherever I turned my view … 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 details the ways in which languages change over time. However much 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.
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 16th century, often quoting from those thought to be 'great works', such as poemas by Milton or plays by Shakespeare. Therefore the quotations reflect his own distinct literary taste and political views. And yet, 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.
- Article by:
- David Crystal
- Language and ideas
David Crystal looks past the myths surrounding Samuel Johnson's Dictionary to discover a work of remarkable precision, sensitivity and attention to social and regional variation.