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Picture of Samuel Johnson, essayist and writer of the first Dictionary; eighteenth century British Literature / English Literature


 
April 15, 1755
Samuel Johnson   (1709 - 1784)
 
Johnson's Dictionary
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1755 Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published. Johnson's dictionary is considered the first significant work of its kind in English, most notable for the precision of its definitions and the inclusion of exemplary quotations, drawn from Johnson's favorite literary sources. It is also legendary as a reflection of Johnson's wit, style and quirky personality.

It took Johnson nine years to assemble his 40,000 words, along with their pronunciations, etymologies, definitions and illustrations. He had originally estimated three years, and when told that it took forty members of the French Academy forty years to complete a similar project, he replied with what has become classic Johnsonia: "... let me see, forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three is to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman."

This is a long way from "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," but that was thirty-five years later and Johnson, said one in his crowd, was "a symposiarch," a man who might hold forth on any side so long as it allowed for the playing of the conversational trump. Making a dictionary must have struck Johnson as a spectacular opportunity for having the ultimate last card; certainly his definitions can be quirky, if not inflammatory. He defined "oats" as "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"; being a Tory, he defined "Whig" as "the name of a faction"; having been snubbed in his effort to obtain financial backing for his Dictionary from Lord Chesterfield, he defined "patron" as "commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery." When close to completing his labors, Johnson did receive an offer of help from m'Lord, to whom he replied in a letter now offered as a definition of Johnsonian style:
    ...Seven years, My Lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.

    The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks. Is not a patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it....

    Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less, for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, My Lord, Your Lordship's most humble, most obedient servant

    Sam Johnson
A shortened edition of the Dictionary, edited by Johnson scholar Jack Lynch, has recently been published. So many of the "selections from the 1755 work that defined the English language" are saucy that an "index of piquant terms" is provided.

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Related authors:  Beryl Bainbridge, Christopher Smart, Fanny Burney, James Boswell, Oxford English Dictionary, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Robert Burton
 
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