A history of the dictionary: Dr Johnson, I presume?

  • Details
  • Transcript
  • Audio
  • Downloads
  • Extra Reading

Johnson's early life was beset by ill health; his eyesight and hearing were poor throughout his life. Poverty obliged him to leave Oxford without a degree. Johnson travelled to London with his friend, the actor David Garrick, and supported himself through journalism. He was commissioned to write his renowned Dictionary of the English Language and rented 17 Gough Square (now Dr Johnson's House, off Fleet Street, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Samuel Johnson).

This lecture is a part of the Look it up yourself! A History of the Dictionary series, which celebrates the tercentenary of the birth of Samuel Johnson.
Other lectures in this 'Monday's at One' series include:
   The Meaning of Everything: The history of the Oxford English Dictionary
   After 150 Years: The topicality of Roget's Thesaurus
   From Dictionary User to Amateur Lexicographer: Possibilities of on-line searches

Download Transcript




Henry Hitchings


I am going to talk this afternoon about Samuel Johnson - who is today better known as Doctor Johnson - and about his Dictionary of the English Language, which was published on April the 15th, 1755.

It seems appropriate to begin with a few thoughts about dictionaries. They are, after all, a resource we take for granted. We consult them rather as a Christian may consult the Bible: looking for absolute and definitive truth. But to many people, even if dictionaries are useful guides, they don't seem interesting. One might very reasonably ask, 'Why expend any energy exploring the origins, methods and qualities of a dictionary? Especially a dictionary published in age so far removed from our own.'

As for the idea that someone might go so far as to read a dictionary - and I have read Samuel Johnson's Dictionary; all 2,300 pages; twice... it sounds a bit like madness. Who actually reads dictionaries, apart from Scrabble addicts? One answer, as it happens, is the American civil rights activist Malcolm X, who worked through a dictionary from cover to cover while he was in prison in the 1940s. But this kind of behaviour isn't common, and on the whole we turn to a dictionary to remind ourselves how to spell a particular word or to reassure ourselves that we understand its meaning. Most people are inclined to think of dictionaries as stores of verbal lumber, full of obsolete jargon, or just as forests of words, impenetrable and redolent of damp.

There is, of course, another way of looking at them. I've always been the sort of person who likes searching for buried treasure. As a child, I used to read the family medical encyclopaedia - or the 'death book', as we called it. It brimmed with interesting information, even if sometimes it was the sort of information I could comfortably have done without (I have a slightly too vivid recollection of the picture that accompanied the entry for 'zip fastener injuries'). The medical encyclopaedia was a better read than any of the patronizingly cute children's books we had foisted on us at school. So was the London A to Z. I liked the fact, for instance, that in the part of South London where my cousins lived there were adjacent streets called Shakespeare Road, Chaucer Road and Milton Road. Back then I hadn't heard of cultural imperialism, but I had heard of Chaucer and Shakespeare - I'm not so sure about Milton - and my little discovery led me to suspect that the London streets were thick with hidden stories. It was in much the same spirit that I later became interested in dictionaries.

Dr Johnson insisted that dictionaries are the pedigree of nations. It was a typical Johnsonian claim: a bold statement, tinged with patriotism and pride. But it was not an exaggeration; the character of our language defines us, and Johnson grasped that dictionaries, while playing an important role in authorizing usage, testify as well to the vitality of languages, to the role of languages as expressions of national character. Our relationship with our own language can be complacent, but when we speak a foreign tongue we sense more keenly the 'characterfulness' of that language, the peculiar ways it channels history and culture, its special version of the world, its distinctive textures and codes.

Different languages seem suited to different areas of experience. Legend has it that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, preferred to speak French to diplomats, Italian to ladies, German to stable boys, and Spanish to God. English he seems to have used sparingly - allegedly only to talk to geese. A recent history of world languages, a wonderful book by Nicholas Ostler called Empires of the Word, paints a different picture, speaking of 'Arabic's austere grandeur; Chinese's unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit's luxuriating hierarchies; Greek's self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Spanish rigidity and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen.' We may not straightaway recognize all those characterizations, or indeed agree with them, but they provide a useful framework for thinking about English, its flavour, its texture, and how a dictionary can capture its essence.

As for reading dictionaries, there's another argument for doing so: they are the last word in what I have already termed 'buried treasure'. They contain a wealth of arcane information, home truths, snippets of trivia, sketches and miniature histories. They are, I would argue, encyclopaedias in disguise.

And what about this Dr Johnson? It's a name to conjure with, but that's exactly what tends to happen: he's reduced to a few magical soundbites and inaccurate anecdotes. A hundred years ago pretty much any well-educated person in this country could have recited a string of Johnson's achievements. But his shares have declined. It is probably no exaggeration to say that he is now chiefly known for his appearance in an episode of Blackadder.

Some of you may recall the episode in question. It's called 'Ink and Incapability', and begins with Blackadder's master, Prince George, a young man apparently 'as thick as a whale omelette', weighing up the merits of becoming Johnson's patron. He invites the great wordsmith to show him his handiwork. Unfortunately, Blackadder's dogsbody Baldrick uses Johnson's sole manuscript of the Dictionary to stoke a fire. Blackadder decides that the only reasonable course of action is to compile a new dictionary himself and hope Johnson doesn't notice. He struggles, however, to get past 'aardvark' - which he defines as 'Medium-sized insectivore with protruding nasal implement'. A repentant Baldrick is on hand with some characteristically hopeless suggestions. Of the letter 'C' he ventures this: 'big blue wobbly thing that mermaids live in'. Blackadder is unamused. Baldrick tries out another of his efforts: 'I'm quite pleased with 'dog',' he says, pausing before supplying his definition - 'Not a cat'.

Baldrick isn't being quite as stupid as we might at first think. It's common to phrase definitions in oppositional terms: when we want to tell our friends what something is like, we often tell them what it isn't. 'He's not a tall man'; 'This wine's not too tannic'. Johnson himself, in his Dictionaryentry for the word 'sweet', gives as three of his definitions 'not salt', 'not sour' and 'not stinking'. But while the Blackadder episode may be quite perceptive about one of the problems that faces people who make dictionaries, its fidelity to history is limited (for instance, it has Jane Austen as Johnson's contemporary, sporting 'a beard like a rhododendron'), and it is responsible for a few funny ideas about Johnson, notably that he forgot to include in his magnum opus the word 'sausage' - which he didn't.

The main place Dr Johnson crops up, though, is in the more self-regarding quarters of the Press. Johnson was a great one for succinct and witty sayings, and columnists love to quote them - or misquote them, or indeed simply pass them off as their own. The one that appears most often is 'When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life'. True then, perhaps, but now less obviously so - and a cliché. Altogether more pungent, I'd suggest, are Johnson's pronouncements that second marriages are 'the triumph of hope over experience' and that 'Much may be made of a Scotsman, if he be caught young'. In his Dictionary, some of this pungency remains, as when he defines 'suicide' as 'the horrid crime of destroying one's self' and 'luggage' as 'anything of more bulk than value'.

In any case, there is a lot more to Johnson than this... It took his best biographer, James Boswell, almost a thousand pages to relate his life. Modern efforts have tended to be more economical - perhaps, making a virtue of brevity, I can at this point usefully distil the life of Dr Johnson into a few hundred words.

Samuel Johnson was born in September 1709 in Lichfield, which was at that time a prosperous market town. He was the son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and he grew up in his father's bookshop - a sort of library magpie, able to pluck books down from the shelves at will. His childhood was unhappy. He was part blind, hard of hearing, and disfigured by a form of tuberculosis he had developed as a baby. His home life was awkward, especially when his parents bickered about his father's lack of business sense. At school he was supervised by a succession of peevish, intolerant schoolmasters. It's worth noting his Dictionary definition of 'school': a 'house of discipline and instruction'. It seems telling that the discipline precedes the instruction. In his adolescence Johnson was at peace only with his books or when being indulged by the few local worthies who spotted his unusual powers of imagination and argument. When in 1728, aged nineteen, he went to Oxford University, it should have been a release, but lack of funds forced him to leave after just thirteen months.

The next few years were spent in obscurity. But Johnson made an important decision in 1737. By this time he was married to a woman twenty years his senior and had failed in his attempt to set up a boarding school with her money. Now, hoping to make a living as a writer, he determined to travel to London, Dick Whittington style, to seek his fortune. This wasn't a crazy idea. At a time when publishing and in particular magazines were booming, there was plenty of creative and editorial work to be had, and Johnson was prepared to turn his hand to just about anything. He wrote biographies, witty and instructive essays, political satire and reports on the debates in Parliament. But amid all this busy quill-driving, he always had more serious scholarly designs, and London was a place where scholarship was rewarded financially, rather than just with praise. In 1746, nine years after his arrival in the city, he settled on the commercially plausible idea of publishing an authoritative English dictionary.

Before I talk in more detail about this dictionary, I'll just complete my sketch of Johnson's life. If we fast-forward to the years after the dictionary came out, his output remained diverse: he published Rasselas, a strange little novel about an Abyssinian prince, some important political pamphlets, a travel book about his experiences in the Hebrides, a series of fifty-eight biographies of noted English poets, and an edition of Shakespeare's plays.

Despite being a productive author, he rarely had much money. But in his fifties he was awarded a pension of £300 a year by a still perfectly sane George III. The pension enabled him to be more choosy about what kinds of project he took on, and, in his later years, thanks in part to his role at the heart of a literary club that included some of the most important artistic and political figures of the day, he became a much celebrated and much caricatured public figure.

Among the more bizarre misconceptions about Johnson are (firstly) the notion that he hated women, and (secondly) the idea that he was, by modern standards, violently right-wing - a xenophobe or a racist. A lot of energy could be expended on despatching these myths. For now, perhaps it will be enough to point out that (firstly) Johnson had an unusually large number of female friends, to many of whom he was either a confidant or a patron or both, and (secondly) he was a passionate advocate of the abolition of slavery, had friends of many nationalities, and in his will bequeathed his entire estate - about £4,000 - to his manservant Francis, who was a black Jamaican.  

Thanks to James Boswell's famous biography, and thanks to what seems to be our national taste for trivia and humorous anecdotes, Johnson is, unfortunately, thought of chiefly as a 'character', a kind of educated John Bull, a mass of mannerisms and quotable outbursts. We may be intrigued by the precise number of bottles of port he drank, the size of his breeches, the names of his cats, or his opinion of cucumbers (I quote: 'It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing'), but an interest in his character tends to be indulged at the expense of any very great curiosity about what he wrote.

As it happens, Johnson is, before anything else, a great writer - an original stylist, an important philosopher of travel, a founding father of the modern art of biography, a Christian moralist who was well equipped to understand an increasingly un-Christian world. He is a poet and playwright, an author of fiction, a preacher and essayist, a translator, journalist and political commentator, a reviewer and critic, historian and language scholar. This side of his legacy is frequently underestimated. And if his writings seem less approachable than his life, this must appear especially true in the case of his Dictionary of the English Language.

Yet the Dictionary was the work that put Johnson on the cultural map. It exemplifies perfectly the qualities I described a little earlier - the unexpected rewards that can be extracted from just about any work of reference. Produced by a single man rather than by committee, Johnson's lexicon is at once a defining cultural monument of its age and a peculiarly personal achievement, marked by the quirks of his individual genius.

It is often assumed that Johnson's was the first dictionary of English. In fact, the first volume to give English definitions of English words was published by Robert Cawdrey, a Puritan schoolmaster from Coventry, in 1604. Intended 'for the benefit and help of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilful persons', it was restricted to a mere 2,449 definitions. Think about that number for a moment and you'll see that while it was astart it wasn't really very much. In the years that followed, other scholars sought to improve on this, and it was one of these, a man called Henry Cockeram, who in 1623 became the first to call his effort a 'dictionary'.

Yet despite the efforts of Cawdrey, Cockeram and their successors, by the middle of the eighteenth century there was still no authoritative English lexicon. The French and the Florentines had set up Academies to compile substantial, accurate dictionaries. It took the French Academy of forty men fifty-five years to complete their dictionary - perhaps this tells us something about committees; or maybe, as Johnson suggested, it just tells us something about the French. In any case, Britain's lack of a comparable work was a source of embarrassment. A truly good dictionary of English was a national imperative, but it took a commercially savvy consortium of publishers to initiate its creation.

This consortium was led by a man called Robert Dodsley, who had once been a footman but was now among the most powerful figures in literary London. It was Dodsley who identified Samuel Johnson as the man best equipped for the task.

Johnson had established a reputation as a lucid and hard-working writer. Content as he was to grind away at whatever job came along, he always brought a certain gravitas to even the most humdrum undertaking. The prospect of compiling a dictionary appealed to his instinctive desire to educate. Yet in truth it was chiefly attractive because Robert Dodsley and the other booksellers were prepared to pay him 1,500 guineas (£1,575). To put this figure into perspective: by the middle of the eighteenth century a gentleman could live quite well on £300 a year; you could get a suit of respectable cut and cloth for £10; a shilling bought dinner at a steakhouse or a pound of Parmesan cheese; and a penny was enough to get drunk on, so long as you were prepared to drink the sort of gin that was sold from a big jug in a wheelbarrow!  

Johnson signed his contract for 1,500 guineas with the booksellers on 18 June 1746, over a hearty breakfast at a tavern near Covent Garden called the Golden Anchor. Newly solvent, he soon set himself up in handsome quarters, a good Queen Anne house in Gough Square off Fleet Street. The house still stands; today it is a museum - and I know its curator, who's here today, won't mind my saying it is open from Monday to Saturday, from 11 a.m. till 5 p.m.. Once he'd settled there, Johnson turned its top floor into an office, and hired secretaries - of whom there were six or possibly seven, all male and all but one of them originally from Scotland - to help him with the more menial aspects of the task.

One of the innovations on which Johnson decided at an early stage was to provide quotations from a wide range of authors to illustrate the different applications of the words he defined. The value of this was that he could convey a real sense of language in use. A side-effect was that hisDictionary would in the end resemble an anthology of classic poetry and prose.

In his Life of Johnson, James Boswell suggests that the fledgling dictionary-maker began by drawing up a wordlist, and that he then came up with the definitions before finally sniffing out appropriate quotations with which to illustrate them. But this was not the case.

In fact, Johnson's first move was to plunder lists of words from existing dictionaries, but he quickly rejected this approach. Instead, his method was to start with books, not with the alphabet. He applied himself to what he called the 'perusal' of English writers: his wordlist was generated by the illustrations, rather than preceding them. In order to find his materials he devoured a huge range of literature. Concentrating on the works of the previous century and a half, he searched plays, medical texts, political tracts, theology and poetry for examples of proper English usage. In all he read more than 2,000 books.

A lot of what he read now sounds obscure. Before looking closely at Johnson and his reading, I certainly wasn't familiar with the 'water poet' John Taylor, who earned his living ferrying travellers along the Thames in his little boat, or John Graunt, a London haberdasher who wrote a series of harrowing reflections on the bills of mortality during an outbreak of bubonic plague. Or, for that matter, the traveller Thomas Coryate, whom Johnson refers to by his nickname Furcifer, on account of his having alleged he was the first Englishman to eat using a fork. But the key works to which he turned were more enduring ones, like the Bible and the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, John Dryden and Jonathan Swift.

Some of the books he chewed over and digested, others he merely tasted; some he inspected out of what was essentially curiosity, and others he read with great care. We can think of Johnson as a sort of butterfly collector, gathering specimens of usage out in the wild and then arranging them systematically at a later date. But there was nothingdainty about his reading habits. In later years he described to James Boswell ripping the heart out of a book 'like a Turk', and he once gave an elegantly bound volume of Greek speeches to a female friend because, he said, it was 'too fine for a scholar's talons'. Instead of fetishizing books, he tended to clog their margins with notes, claiming a little improbably that these could be removed by being rubbed with breadcrumbs.

Whenever Johnson found a passage suitable for quotation in theDictionary, he marked its beginning and end, underlined the word he meant it to illustrate and wrote its initial letter in the margin. His secretaries would then, in pairs, go over the marked text. Each time one of them came to a marked passage, he would transcribe it on to a large sheet and strike out the letter that had been written in the margin. Once full, these large sheets were cut up into little slips, each bearing a single quotation. These were arranged in alphabetical order by the secretaries, who then copied the material into notebooks, leaving space for Johnson to insert definitions and etymologies. There were eighty notebooks in all, and the result was a skeleton dictionary. As this took shape, quite promisingly, the quotations were with increasing frequency transcribed straight into the notebooks, rather than on to individual copy slips.

The trouble with this system became apparent only slowly. Because the skeleton dictionary comprised entries ranging right through the alphabet, Johnson had to estimate in advance how much space he was going to need for his illustrative material. His expectations were informed by a rigid idea of how many shades of meaning a word could possess. When he started out, he thought a word could have at most seven different senses or applications. In practice, as he read more books and reflected on the usage he found in them, Johnson discovered that many words had a wealth of meanings which required a more subtle and flexible approach; some words had ten, twenty or even fifty distinct senses. The verb 'to put', he would ultimately decide, had 134, and it took him 8,000 words to explain them. Initially he tried to squeeze new material into the notebooks, but there simply wasn't enough space to accommodate all his findings. First the manuscript became scruffy with additions: then it became almost useless.

In order to do justice to the full spectrum of the English language's possibilities, he had to start a fresh manuscript. It needed, in purely physical terms, to be more open-ended, capable of accommodating an unlimited number of senses and supporting quotations. This change was crucial to the Dictionary's success. It marked a shift from prescriptivism - saying how things ought to be - to a more descriptive (and thus progressive) style of lexicography - saying what was actually 'out there'. His attention to the range of English usage, rather than just to what seemed elegant and advisable, resulted in a more experience-based, documentary approach, and has had a lasting influence on the making of dictionaries.  

Johnson's backers, however, were not impressed by his crisis of philological conscience. They wanted results. Disruptions were infuriating - and frequent. By nature a charitable man, Johnson allowed impoverished authors to lodge with him free of charge, and the house off Fleet Street became a menagerie of oddballs: drunks and homeless prostitutes and poets down on their luck. His wife, who was not well suited to city living, spent most of her time in Hampstead, which was then a tranquil village, known for its special healing waters. There were constant money problems; her medical bills were exorbitant (as much as two guineas a week), and work on the Dictionary entailed all sorts of incidental expenses - vast quantities of ink and paper, candles, books of course, and the team of secretaries. Johnson had to take on extra work to shore up his finances. This was exhausting, and he was often laid low by illness - in particular, by a powerful melancholy that could at times disable his whole being. Ironically, the one book that could get him out of bed punctually was Robert Burton's Anamtomy of Melancholy. The word itself, 'melancholy', he defines in the Dictionary as 'A kind of madness, in which the mind is always fixed on one object.'

Anyone who became Johnson's friend came to know a good deal about this side of him - his dark fears and their effects. Sir Joshua Reynolds, a thoughtful but not always sensitive observer, supposed that 'The great business of his life was to escape from himself; this disposition he considered as the disease of his mind'. Boswell goes into greater detail:

'His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum of Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him.'

The force of the image comes from its graphic materiality. At the same time, Boswell is perceptive in seeing the heroism at the heart of Johnson's unquiet mind. It is an intrinsic fact of certain mental illnesses (manic depression, for example) that the pains they induce are counterbalanced by special gifts; sufferers may often rue the indignities and traumas they undergo, but they are endowed with energies, aptitudes or intuitions unavailable to others, and they would only with the greatest reluctance exchange these capabilities for a more stable, structured existence. As Dryden quipped, 'There is a pleasure sure / In being mad, which none but madmen know'. The throwaway lines contain an important truth. Johnson would not have been Johnson without his burden of melancholy. His sickness is, inextricably, a part of his greatness.

And so, by slow degrees, the Dictionary took shape. The finished work testifies to this exhausting slowness. In his entry for the adjective 'dull', Johnson exemplifies the word with a sentence of his own: 'To make dictionaries is dull work'. He defines 'lexicographer' as 'a harmless drudge'. When he writes in this vein, it's not hard for us to see that this is the dark midnight of dictionary-making: there is Johnson, sweating over a book, his candle flickering, his shadow pinned against the wall. He spent the best part of a decade locked daily in this pose. It was both a physical ordeal and an intellectual one.

The finished volumes betray his gloomy cast of mind. More than 1,000 of the Dictionary's illustrative quotations refer explicitly to death, while the words 'morbid' and 'melancholy' recur with disturbing frequency. It may be dangerous to read a lot into the choice of quotations, but it is tempting. What, for instance, made him choose to illustrate the noun visitor with a line from a letter by Jonathan Swift? 'I have a large house, yet I should hardly prevail to find one visitor, if I were not able to hire him with a bottle of wine.' What about evening, which he illustrates with Sir Walter Raleigh's judgement that 'The devil is now more laborious than ever, the long day of mankind drawing fast towards an evening, and the world's tragedy and time near at an end'? There is much, much more in this vein.

The last thing Johnson did before setting his work before the public was to write a long and noble preface, and in this preface he reflects that:

'My English dictionary was written with little assistance from the learned, and without any patronage from the great; and was written not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and sorrow.'

That sentence makes light of his many troubles. 'I have protracted my work,' he adds, 'till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise'.

This seems like the typical rhetorical gesture of someone who has invested a huge amount of time and energy in a project and can now hardly see its merit or its point. Yet privately Johnson was proud of his achievement. In a letter to a friend he described it as 'magnificent in its great bulk'. The description is just. Priced at £4.10s. - which was the equivalent of six months' pay for a housemaid - it consisted of two hefty volumes that weighed twenty pounds (about the same as a very large Christmas turkey). It ran, as I've said, to 2,300 pages, and comprised definitions of 42,773 words, with more than 100,000 quotations offered in support.

Inevitably, there were omissions and mistakes, many of which were quickly spotted by critics. Johnson defined both 'leeward' and 'windward' as 'towards the wind', and unhelpfully explained that the meaning of the noun 'defluxion' was 'a defluxion'. 'To worm' was, somewhat mystifyingly, 'To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.' There were no entries for everyday words like 'virus', 'blond' and 'irritable', although he had found room for strange items like the adjective 'anatiferous' (which meant 'producing ducks') or the noun 'retromingency' (meaning 'pissing backwards', which is something that hares do, apparently).

Yet there was, and remains, much to savour. There are startling quirks, like the definition of 'patron' as 'a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery' (Johnson had been poorly treated by his own patron, the Earl of Chesterfield). His discrimination between different meanings is subtle, and the illustrative quotations are often captivating - the poet Robert Browning was so impressed he scoured both volumes in order to 'qualify' himself for a literary career. Moreover, many of Johnson's definitions are deliciously succinct: an embryo is 'the offspring yet unfinished in the womb', and a rant is 'high sounding language unsupported by dignity of thought'. Perhaps, too, we're a little startled to find him explaining that a 'pessary' is 'an oblong form of medicine made to thrust up into the uterus upon some extraordinary occasions'. His choice of verb tells us more than we might wish to hear about eighteenth-century medicine - a gory theatre of thrustings and pokings, invasions and incisions.

There are other pleasures besides: strange words, bizarre etymologies, and odd scraps of information - the type of thing you'd except to find in one of those Christmas novelty volumes that these days seem to fill the shelves of the local bookshop. Readers may chance on the information that Alexander the Great drank from a cup which could hold fourteen pints, or on the old belief that if a shrew runs over your foot you go lame. We can learn that asbestos has an 'insipid' taste, that crocodiles smell good when their bowels are removed, and that dogs dislike being fed powdered glass. We find out, too, that in the eighteenth century a barrel of Essex butter contained 106 pounds, whereas one of Suffolk butter contained 256. We may not always believe in the necessity (or truth) of these nuggets, but they amuse, especially when we're treated to the information that you can get something very much like malaria by sleeping with a copy of Homer's Iliad under your pillow, or that you can make wine by extracting the juice from a penguin (although admittedly this is because penguin was the eighteenth-century name for a type of pineapple).

In both its fundamentals and its tiny details, the Dictionary has exerted a strong influence on all areas of scholarship connected with the English language. But its influence has ranged much wider than this. In the second half of the eighteenth century, and for a large part of the nineteenth, Johnson's work was the standard authority here in Britain. It was the dictionary in the eyes of authors and thinkers as various as Keats and Wordsworth, Dickens and Jane Austen, George Eliot and Mary Wollstonecraft, Carlyle, Ruskin, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the Bronte sisters and Trollope, Oscar Wilde, Darwin and T. H. Huxley. It was also widely exported. It became a symbol of Britishness and an instrument of Empire, a standard work in America, India, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the model for dictionary-makers in Germany, Sweden and Italy. Sometimes the Dictionary's influence could have startling results. In the summer of 1775, the toast of British high society was Omai, a young man brought back from Tahiti by Captain Cook's party. Quick to learn chess, Omai was rather less successful in his command of English, and apparently, having gathered from Johnson'sDictionary that 'to pickle' meant 'to preserve', he saluted Lord Sandwich, the Admiral of the Fleet, with the hope that 'God Almighty might pickle his Lordship to all eternity'.

The response was not always positive. In Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp is presented with a copy of the Dictionary when she leaves Miss Pinkerton's Academy. As she sets off in her carriage, she flings the book from the window. In doing so, she is casting off both masculine authority and the very idea of Britishness. And her reaction was not an unusual one... While Johnson's Dictionary prompted a great deal of important work in the study of language, it enshrined values - a rather middle-class sort of morality, for instance, and a very English worldview - against which many people chafed. None was more voluble on the subject than the Connecticut schoolmaster Noah Webster, who was so piqued by what he condemned as Johnson's 'injudicious' choice of quotations and sometimes wayward etymologies that he created his own, proudly American dictionary, which is responsible, among other things, for institutionalizing some of those American spellings that differ from English ones, like 'ax' without an 'e' and 'color' with no 'u'. Webster, it should be noted, was for all his disapproval quite happy to lift from Johnson entire definitions - verbatim.

Perhaps the most curious feature of the Dictionary's afterlife is that it continues to have a place in American law. When the US Constitution was drawn up, in the late 1780s, Johnson's was the prevailing authority on the English language. As a result, to this day American lawyers turn to Johnson to be sure of correctly interpreting their Constitution. So, for instance, when in 2000 a legal action was brought by seventeen members of US Congress, who complained that President Bill Clinton had no constitutional right to continue air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia without the explicit authorization of Congress, a key concern was whether he had violated the Constitutional principle that Congress alone can declare war. One of the issues at stake was the authentic eighteenth-century meaning of 'declare': was a declaration of war synonymous with military engagement, or was it simply a recognition of the pre-requisites for conflict? Equally, what exactly was meant in the Constitution by the word 'war'? Johnson was enlisted as a guide to what the Constitution meant. It is strange to reflect that, as long as the US Consitution remains intact, Johnson's Dictionary will have a role to play in American jurisprudence.

In any case, it has lasting appeal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge considered it 'a most instructive and entertaining book', while professing he would be surprised to hear 'but very qualified praises of it, as a dictionary'. Although this is harshly put, it emphasizes that there is more than one way of approaching Johnson's creation. Full of strange facts, linguistic curios, nuggets of aphorism and moments of unexpected poetry, theDictionary is the kind of book you can dip into time after time without exhausting. It is the only dictionary of English to have been compiled by a major writer. It is, moreover, a work of literature in its own right. And that, as much as anything, is why it is worth celebrating.

I shall leave you with a handful of Johnson's definitions, a more fitting conclusion than any I could hope to write myself:-

First, a strange and not entirely helpful one: 'Network. Anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.'

Then, a quartet of good ones: 'Nightmare. A morbid oppression in the night, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast.' 'Hiccough. To sob with convulsion of the stomach.' 'Favourite. A mean wretch whose whole business is by any means to please.' 'Uxorious. Infected with connubial dotage.'

Next, a piquant one: 'Excise. 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.'

And finally, a controversial one - well-known, but sure still to provoke mirth in some and, in others, irritation: 'Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.'




© Henry Hitchings, Gresham College, 2 March 2009

This event was on Mon, 02 Mar 2009

Henry Hitchings FRSL

Henry Hitchings FRSL

Henry Hitchings is an author, reviewer and critic, specializing in narrative non-fiction, with a particular emphasis on language and cultural history. The second of his...

Find out more

Support Gresham

Gresham College has offered an outstanding education to the public free of charge for over 400 years. Today, Gresham plays an important role in fostering a love of learning and a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Your donation will help to widen our reach and to broaden our audience, allowing more people to benefit from a high-quality education from some of the brightest minds.