Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary Of The English Language (1755.04.15)

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Samuel Johnson’s impressive accomplishment A Dictionary of the English Language, published on 15th April 1755, the enormous work took Johnson nearly 9 years to complete, curiously almost completely single-handedly, and is now considered as one of the most important dictionaries in the history of the English language.

When it came out the book was enormous, not just in scope (it contained a 42,773-long word list) but also in size: its pages were 18 inches (46 cm) tall and nearly 20 inches (50 cm) wide. Johnson himself pronounced the book “Vasta mole superbus” (“Proud in its great bulk”). One of Johnson’s significant innovations was to illustrate the meanings of his words by literary quotation, of which there are around 114,000. The authors most frequently cited by Johnson include Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden but also included sentences taken from the popular press of his day.

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ENGLISH DICTIONARY ON KRNN, 4/15:  A text which was authoritative, comprehensive, and innovative, The Johnson Dictionary Of The English Language was published on this date in 1755.  If you fancy a bit of English slang, then get your agenda sorted and tune in the British skiffle playlist on Crosscurrents, 4/15 at 8 am.

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Johnson—a celebrated humourist and anecdotist who also wrote uncountable works of journalism and criticism, biographies, essays, poems, and even a novel and a stage play—brought a huge amount of that wit and linguistic originality to his dictionary, which defined over 42,000 words, using 114,000 literary quotations to illustrate them. Famously, for instance, he defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”—but that famous definition is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the slights, barbs and quips Johnson included in his dictionary.

BACKFRIEND

The Oxford English Dictionary calls a backfriend “a pretended or false friend,” but Johnson was more straightforward and defined the word as “a friend backwards”—or in other words, “an enemy in secret.”

EXCISE

No one likes paying tax—and Johnson knew it. Excise was defined as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.”

FINESSE

Johnson didn’t much care for French loanwords, and omitted a great deal of francophone words—including such familiar examples as champagne and bourgeois—from his dictionary. Many of those that he did include, meanwhile, had some serious shade thrown at them: Finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language”; monsieur was described as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman”; and ruse was labeled “a French word neither elegant nor necessary.”

GYNOCRACY

A gynocracy is a governing body of women, or women seen as a ruling class. In Johnson’s pithier words, however, a “gynecocrasay” was defined as a “petticoat government.”

LEXICOGRAPHER

Johnson seemingly didn’t think much of his own job: On page 1195, he called a lexicographer “a harmless drudge” who “busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.”

LUNCH

Lunch wasn’t so much a time as a quantity in Johnson’s eyes: He defined it as “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”

PATRON

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary and paid a staggering 1500 guineas (around $300,000 today) for his troubles. Even still, he couldn’t let the opportunity to have a dig at the London publishers who acted as his financial backers go by: He famously defined a patron as “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.”

PENSION

A pension is “an allowance,”  adding that “in England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.”

POLITICIAN

As well as “one versed in the arts of government,” Johnson defined a politician as “a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.”

2 thoughts on “Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary Of The English Language (1755.04.15)

  1. As a small child my Father carried me up stairs to bed past a print portrait of Dr. Johnson. I has heard my Father say that Dr. Johnson once said he had “no passion for clean linen”. So every night I would point to the portrait and say: “no passion for clean linen!”😀

    Liked by 1 person

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