Samuel Johnson and his Famous Dictionary

Samuel Johnson reading the "Vicar of Wakefield

Samuel Johnson reading the “Vicar of Wakefield

On April 15, 1755, after nine years of intensive labor, Samuel Johnson publishes his “Dictionary of the English Language”, sometimes published as Johnson‘s Dictionary. It is among the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote. – Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson Background

Samuel Johnson showed signs of great intelligence quite early and his parents decided to start his educational program, when he was only three years old. At the age of nine, he was already promoted to the upper school. The financial situation of the Johnson family decreased and next to his studies, the young Samuel began stitching books. He entered the entered Pembroke College at Oxford in 1728 and also began writing several poems. Due to financial issues, Johnson had to leave Pembroke early without a degree.

Johnson spent a lot time looking for positions where a degree was not necessary and taught for a while under Wolstan Dixie, 4th Baronet. After an argument with his wife however, Johnson had to look for a different position. During this period, Johnson spent much time with his friend Edmund Hector, who was living in the home of the publisher Thomas Warren. Johnson was asked for help with his Birmingham Journal, which improved his connection to Warren. In 1735, Johnson had applied unsuccessfully for the position of headmaster at Solihull School and he made the conclusion that he would become a successful teacher only if he ran his own school. In the same year, Johnson opened Edial Hall School as a private academy with only 3 students at first. However, the school turned out to be unsuccessful. Many historians assume, that the Tourette syndrom he was suffering from was responsible for his failing as a schoolmaster. Johnson then began working on his first masterpiece, the historical tragedy ‘Irene’. Johnson soon found employment as a writer for The Gentleman’s Magazine and moved to London.

The Dictionary

In 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson with an idea about creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. Johnson agreed and claimed to be finished in three years. He did finish the work ‘only’ after nine years, but in comparison, the Académie Française had forty scholars spending forty years to complete their dictionary. Even though, the dictionary was later also criticized, it was still referred to as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time”. Johnson’s dictionary became the most commonly used and imitated for the 150 years between its first publication and the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. It is said, that Johnson’s Dictionary offered insights into the 18th century and “a faithful record of the language people used”. The Dictionary was finally published in April 1755, with the title page acknowledging that Oxford had awarded Johnson a Master of Arts degree in anticipation of the work. It contained 42,773 entries and an important innovation in English lexicography was to illustrate the meanings of his words by literary quotation, of which there were approximately 114,000. Next to writing his dictionary, Johnson also spent the nine years writing several essays and poems. He produced a series titled as “The Rambler” which were published every Tuesday and Saturday. The popularity of The Rambler took off once the issues were collected in a volume, they were reprinted nine times during Johnson’s life.

At yovisto academic video search, you may be interested in a Gresham College video lecture by Henry Hitchings on the history of the dictionary entitled ‘Dr Johnson, I presume?’.

References and Further Reading:

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