Revisiting Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
You Should Look It Up
Kids hate dictionaries. That’s something I’ve discovered over fifteen years of tutoring elementary and middle school kids. If they come across a word they don’t know, they’d rather ignore it than go to the bookcase for a dictionary.
I couldn’t help thinking about that last month when I stopped by 17 Gough Square in London, the home of Samuel Johnson from 1748 to 1759, which is when he and a staff of six were hard at work compiling The Dictionary of the English Language [volume 1 and volume 2]. Visitors are welcome in most rooms, and all the exhibits give a taste of the Georgian life Johnson and his friends led. My favorite spot was the attic, where most of the dictionary work was done. You can sit where Johnson sat and thumb through facsimiles of the dictionary.
Johnson, a lexicographer, biographer, essayist, and wit, clearly had a way with words. His style is immortalized in the Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D., by James Boswell, who used his friend’s honorary degree from Trinity College, Dublin, to give him the Dr. Johnson title we all know him by. The biography includes many of Johnson’s famous witticisms, including the one he’s most famous for: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
By today’s standards, his dictionary is small, defining just 47,000 words, in most cases using multiple quotations from the great works to illustrate their use. There are ten times as many entries—but far fewer quotations per entry—in the current Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.
When Johnson wrote his dictionary, he took a novel [“new; not ancient; not used of old; unusual”] approach, which he described in his plan (using the conventional spelling of the time for “critic”): “The value of a work must be estimated by its use; it is not enough that a dictionary delights the critick, unless, at the same time, it instructs the learner.”
It took Johnson and company eight years to complete their tome. And though Johnson owes a debt of gratitude to the men who worked with him and the lexicographers who preceded him, the book and its reputation bear his name.
His wit comes through from the opening paragraphs of the preface: “It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life … to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise… Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries,” he says. The poor dictionary writer is doomed, he explains, “only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius.”
Johnson also improved upon earlier dictionaries that were often littered with definitions that didn’t explain. The audiotape at the Samuel Johnson House compares Johnson with John Kersey, who published the 1702 New English Dictionary. For example, Kersey defined cat as “a well-known creature,” while Johnson was much more specific in calling it “a domestic animal that catches mice, commonly reckoned by naturalists the lowest order the leonine species.” Then he illustrated with a quote from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:
“‘Twas you incensed the rabble: Cats, that can judge as fitly of his worth As I can of those mysteries which heaven Will not have earth to know.”
And then a quote from Macbeth:
“Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.”
And finally a quote from Peacham on Drawing:
“A cat, as she beholds the light, draws the ball of her eye small and long, being covered over with a green skin, and dilates it at pleasure.”
So, now can you picture a cat?
Some of Johnson’s definitions are more memorable for their wit than their meaning. For example:
Lexicographer “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”
Oats “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
With definitions like those Johnson didn’t always “delight the critick.” Thomas Babington Macaulay, for one, criticized his literary style and his etymology.
How do his definitions compare with what we get today? No question dictionaries today are easier to use, at least online. Now you want to know a word, just highlight it and up pops the meaning. But what kind of definition do you get? Well, for definition dictionary.com first entry says:
“The act of defining, or of making something definite, distinct, or clear:
We need a better definition of her responsibilities.”
Sorry, dictionary.com, but that definition’s not helpful. Compare it to Johnson’s first entry:
“A short description of a thing by its properties:
“I drew my definition of poetical wit from my particular consideration of him; for propriety of thoughts and words is only to be found in him. –Dryden”
For us, that may be arcane (arcane: “known or understood by very few” in dictionary.com; closest in Johnson’s is arcanum “a Latin word signifying a secret”). But Johnson’s dictionary lives on and continues to delight. Visit at the Samuel Johnson House and see for yourself. And take the kids. If they don’t like the dictionary, there are Georgian costumes for them to try on.
Janet Willen is author of Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery (2015) and Five Thousand Years of Slavery (2011), written with Marjorie Gann and published by Tundra Books. Publishers Weekly called Speak a Word for Freedom an “engrossing study of female abolitionists from the 18th century to the present day” and gave the book a starred review. Five Thousand Years of Slavery was named a 2012 Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association and a Silver Winner in young adult nonfiction of ForeWord Reviews, and it received a starred review from School Library Journal. A writer and editor for more than thirty years, Janet has written many magazine articles and has edited books for elementary school children as well as academic texts and a remedial writing curriculum for postsecondary students. Janet lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.