A Dictionary of the English Language
A Dictionary of the English Language overview
In 1746, Samuel Johnson was commissioned by a group of London booksellers to produce what would become his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language; he ambitiously promised to complete the task within three years, although it actually took him more like eight. Other English dictionaries had been compiled before, but Johnson’s was unprecedented in its scope, aiming not only to define difficult words but also to show how they were used, something which involved bringing together a huge number of illustrative quotations from across a large span of works of English literature. Johnson also adds a personal, humorous note to many of his entries, for instance defining the word ‘lexicographer’ as ‘a writer of dictionaries: a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words’.
The Dictionary’s paratexts
The Dictionary’s paratexts – in particular, the Plan of an English Dictionary, which Johnson wrote in 1747, early on in the process, and the Preface to the Dictionary published with its first edition in 1755 – are as fascinating as the reference work itself. They contain the author’s reflections on the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of the task he has set himself, since language is always changing and evolving and so cannot ever really be fixed. In the Preface, Johnson sadly admits: ‘No dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away’.
The Dictionary’s reputation
Despite Johnson’s Dictionary being criticised for inaccuracies, especially on questions of etymology, it was a great success immediately upon publication. Many people particularly admired the fact that Johnson had completed the work essentially single-handed.
It would be an important influence on, and model for, Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (first published in 1828), and on the Oxford English Dictionary. Along with The Lives of the English Poets (1779), it stands as Johnson’s greatest contribution to the study of English language and literature.
- 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.
- Article by:
- Andrew Macdonald-Brown
- Satire and humour, Language and ideas
Writers and craftsmen including Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift and Josiah Wedgwood found inspiration in the classical period. Andrew Macdonald-Brown explores how their works adopted the style, genres, aesthetic values and subjects of Greek and Roman writers.