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.

Samuel Johnson
15 April 1755
Literary period:
18th century

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