Dictionary Johnson

Samuel Johnson, part 2.

The Dictionary Years

When last we left our hero, he was struggling in the obscurity of Grubstreet among a multitude of hack writers, poets and other impoverished writers, trying to keep body and soul together by cranking out articles, reviews, biographies or anything else that the publishers asked for. But if we leave him again for a moment and look at London’s high society we will notice among the intelligentsia a growing feeling that the lack of a national dictionary to rival those of the foreign academies, in particular those of France and Italy, was an embarrassment. Without being catalogued and displayed in all its glory, the English language could not claim the same status as the polished European tongues. The obstacle though, was that the idea of a national academy to determine language usage was anathema to the great English tradition of liberty and common law and the project was too large for any single publishing house to undertake and, even if they could finance it, who could write it? Fortunately for them, and Johnson for that matter, and for the whole of western civilization if we get right down to it, one of the publishers put forth the name of a hack writer who was known in the trade for his brilliance and ability, one Samuel Johnson. They put it to him and he accepted. He estimated that it would take him three years to do and he was accordingly paid a lump sum which had to last him the whole project and from which he had to supply paper, ink, amanuenses, lodging and so forth.

Boswell records the following conversation from this time:

[A friend of Johnson asked] But, Sir, how can you do this in three years? JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. ADAMS. But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary. JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.

It ended up taking him over eight years to write, but that figure is misleading because part way through he realized that the system he was using wouldn’t work and he would have to start over. On top of that the money was running out so he had to take other jobs to support himself. One of these other jobs was a series of bi-weekly essays entitled The Rambler, which, while it had only a modest distribution originally, was republished in book form and became relatively popular making Johnson’s name well known. With all this going on he fell into a deep depression and did no work on the dictionary until he worked out a new plan with the publishers; in the two years after which he completed the remaining eighty percent of the dictionary! It was published to general acclaim in 1755.

Johnson’s dictionary was not the first English dictionary as is commonly supposed, but it is the first really good one. While the definitions in general are excellent there are a few that have always stood out as a little quirky. Here are some of the most amusing ones:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge…

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

Network: Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

To worm: To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.

Patron: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.

This last definition leads us into one of the most memorable incidents in the history of the dictionary, Johnson’s split with the Earl of Chesterfield. Chesterfield was one of the great patrons of the arts and considered perhaps the foremost arbiter elegantiarum of the age. One of the publishers who first approached Chesterfield about patronizing the dictionary and he agreed, giving Johnson a token payment of ten pounds. However, no other support was given the whole time that Johnson was writing the dictionary, when it would have been of enormous help, keeping his debtors at bay and in general facilitating the work. When the publication of the dictionary was near Chesterfield wrote some flattering articles in the World puffing it, with the goal of receiving the dedication. When Johnson heard of this, he was furious and wrote the following letter, perhaps the most famous in literary history:

To the Right Honourable the Earl of Chesterfield

February 1755.

My Lord.

I have been lately informed by the Proprietor of the World that two Papers in which my Dictionary is recommended to the Public were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished is an honour which, being very little accustomed to favours from the Great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When upon some slight encouragement I first visited your Lordship I was overpowered like the rest of Mankind by the enchantment of your adress, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le Vainqueur du Vainqueur de la Terre, that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the World contending, but I found my attendance so little incouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once adressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly Scholar can possess. I had done all that I could, and no Man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, My lord have now past 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.

I hope it is no very cinical asperity not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

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


Chesterfield, with the unruffled placidity of the true aristocrat, left the letter out on his table and frequently showed it to his guests, remarking that “this is a man of powers.”

A commendation of the dictionary that was much more pleasing to Johnson was written by David Garrick, the greatest actor of the day, sometimes called “The Restorer of Shakespeare,” and a friend of Johnson:

Talk of war with a Briton, he’ll boldly advance,
That one English soldier will beat ten of France;
Would we alter the boast from the sword to the pen,
Our odds are still greater, still greater our men:
In the deep mines of science though Frenchmen may toil,
Can their strength be compar’d to Locke, Newton, and Boyle?
Let them rally their heroes, send forth all their powers,
Their verse-men and prose-men, then match them with ours!
First Shakspeare and Milton, like Gods in the fight,
Have put their whole drama and epic to flight;
In satires, epistles, and odes would they cope,
Their numbers retreat before Dryden and Pope;
And Johnson, well arm’d like a hero of yore,
Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more

A few things needs to be cleared up. First, Johnson has a reputation as a reactionary conservative who wanted to fix the English language and keep it from changing forever. While that was a popular idea of the time and Johnson did entertain it when he wrote his plan for the dictionary, he was far too practical to stay with it for any amount of time. As he wrote in the Preface, one of the truly great works of English prose:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation…sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.

Second, Webster’s dictionary is the pride of early American and rightly so, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Webster borrowed (we would say plagiarized) extensively from Johnson while at the same time bad mouthing him over and over again. One of the most illustrative examples of this borrowing occurs in his definition of oats where we see the following: “The meal of this grain, oatmeal, forms a considerable and very valuable article of food for man in Scotland, and every where oats are excellent food for horses and cattle.” Not only does he copy Johnson’s definition but his constipated puritanism doesn’t allow him to realize that the Scotland bit was a joke! (Webster’s priggishness is well illustrated in the following anecdote: One day Noah’s wife came upon him and his lover. She exclaimed “Noah I am surprised!” He replied, “No madam, you are astonished. I am surprised.”) After “borrowing” mercilessly from Johnson, Webster pushed vigorously for copyright laws that would prevent anyone from doing the same thing to him.

Webster’s dictionary is often used as to get at the meaning of words as they were used by the Founding Fathers, but it should be noted that Johnson’s was the dictionary of the founders. His last significant revision of it was in 1773, only a couple of years before the Revolution. Webster’s was written almost sixty years later, and there is a big difference between the polished English culture that the Founders were still a part of and the frontiersy culture that influenced the creation of Webster’s new American language.

There is much more to be said but we will leave the Dictionary for now. Next time, hopefully, we will be able to look at the ways in which Johnson shaped books as different as Pride and Prejudice, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Pale Fire.

I’ll end with a quote by W. Jackson Bate: The Dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who labored under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time.”