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In Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, And Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples
There are much better dictionaries than Samuel Johnson’s (read: OED).
But many people still think of his dictionary when they hear “A Dictionary of the English Language.”
Read ahead to find out why.
Who Should Read “A Dictionary of the English Language”? And Why?
Well, we rarely read dictionaries nowadays.
In fact, if you are like us, a dictionary to you basically means a search field (regardless of the online dictionary you use).
However, it doesn’t hurt to have a dictionary on your shelves and leaf through it from time to time.
If so, as old as it is, this one’s one of the best candidates.
Especially if you are a writer (see our Key Lessons section).
About Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson – known as Dr. Johnson as well – was an English poet, essayist, biographer, literary critic, and lexicographer.
Considered “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history,” he is primarily known for his “Dictionary of the English Language,” his collection of biographies “Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets,” his travelogue “A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland,” as well as his superbly annotated edition of “The Plays of William Shakespeare.”
He is the subject of, quite possibly, the best biography ever written: James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson.”
“A Dictionary of the English Language PDF Summary”
Now, how do you summarize a Dictionary?
The answer is, of course, you don’t.
But you do list several reasons why one should own Samuel Johnson’s gargantuan 1755 “Dictionary,” possibly the most influential dictionary ever produced in the history of any language.
#1. Because It Was Compiled by a Single Man
And that man was Samuel Johnson, one of the smartest people to have ever graced our planet with their presence.
This is the proportion,” he said upon learning that 40 French scholars had worked for about 40 years to complete the French dictionary. “Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.
Meaning: he intended to do the same thing which took 40 scholars half a century all by himself in no more than 3 years.
Eventually, he did it in 7.
It’s difficult to say that he failed.
#2. Because It Intended to Establish the English Language Once and for All
In preparation for his work on the actual book, Johnson wrote a Plan for the Dictionary, where he stated, in no uncertain terms, what was his intention:
Our language will be laid down, distinct in its minutest subdivisions, and resolved into its elemental principles. And who upon this survey can forbear to wish, that these fundamental atoms of our speech might obtain the firmness and immutability of the primogenial and constituent particles of matter, that they might retain their substance while they alter their appearance, and be varied and compounded, yet not destroyed?
#3. Because It Revolutionized Dictionaries
Johnson’s “Dictionary” wasn’t the first dictionary of the English language.
But it was the first one of its magnitude: it included 42,773 entries and over 114,000 quotations from the “best writers” explaining the meaning of the words.
Even though few have included literary quotations before Johnson, he did it so well, that it’s safe to say that his dictionary was the first to really understand why these literary quotations mattered.
However, Johnson’s most important innovation was introducing sense divisions into his dictionary entries, something without which it’s impossible to imagine a modern dictionary.
The word with most definitions?
“Take” with 134!
#4. Because Samuel Johnson Was a Humble Lexicographer… Sometimes
Bearing in mind the fact that Johnson worked on his dictionary almost singlehandedly, it’s only natural that he encountered upon quite a few words he was unable to define.
However, he chose to include them all in his dictionary, affixed with the only possible explanation: “I don’t know.”
Next to dogbolt, Johnson wrote “Of this word I know not the meaning” (neither do we, Sam!) and for tatterdemalion, he wrote “tatter and I know not what”!
#5. Because He Was Aware of His Limitations
Of course, Johnson made quite a few mistakes while compiling his dictionary. His biographer and dear friend, James Boswell, recounts a story which explains that he was always aware that this was inevitable:
A lady once asked [Johnson] how he came to define pastern as the knee of a horse: instead of making an elaborate reply, as she expected, he at once replied, ‘Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.’
#6. Because He Disliked Some Words… and He Was Not Afraid to Say That
Johnson didn’t like the French or the practice of freely appropriating and loaning foreign words.
That’s why, after defining the word souvenance, Johnson comments “A French word which with many more is now happily disused.”
In addition, he says that “to proselyte” is “a bad word” and that “to proverb” is “not a good word.” When feeling more spirited, Johnson is a bit more descriptive of his dislikes: finesse is “an unnecessary word” and twittlewattle a “vile word.”
As for dissever, it “ought to be ejected from our language.”
#7. Because Johnson’s Dictionary Contains Many Interesting Definitions
This is the best part.
You know how Johnson defines monsieur?
A term of reproach for a Frenchman.
What about writative?
A word of Pope’s, not to be imitated.
The most famous (though also the most chauvinistic) example is Johnson’s definition of oats:
A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
Key Lessons from “A Dictionary of the English Language”
1. Never Underestimate a Man Who Overestimates Himself
2. Dictionaries Don’t Need to Be Boring
3. Samuel Johnson and the Writers of the Future
Never Underestimate a Man Who Overestimates Himself
When we included Johnson’s “Dictionary” among the 15 best nonfiction books of all time, we wrote that “there’s nothing even remotely similar to Johnson’s endeavor in all of human history.”
And really: this guy was so sure of himself that upon learning that the French needed half a century and 40 scholars to produce a dictionary he announced that he could do the same job by himself in three years.
And, more or less, he succeeded: he singlehandedly completed a Dictionary of the English language containing more than 40,000 words and around 114,000 quotations in no more than seven years!
Dictionaries Don’t Need to Be Boring
Nowadays, Dictionaries try to be impartial which means that most of them are as neutral as possible, the paragons of objectivity.
Johnson’s was all but.
In addition to all the scholarship definition, he decided to include several personal comments and explanations, including one definition which sums up full well how he felt while creating the dictionary:
Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.
Samuel Johnson and the Writers of the Future
With his personal comments, Johnson “established the oblique traditions of facetious and political lexicography,” that is, he inspired other writers to create strange types of dictionaries, the most famous among them being Ambrose Bierce’s misanthropic and widely beloved “Devil’s Dictionary.”
But that is not everything!
Coleridge even wrote that he “should suspect the man of a morose disposition who should speak of it without respect and gratitude as a most instructive and entertaining book.”
Robert Browning read this dictionary “in its entirety” because he thought this was the only way to qualify himself as a poet.
Finally, Samuel Beckett constantly browsed it to find obscure words he could use; and he did: “increpation,” “inosculation,” and “to snite” came from here.
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“A Dictionary of the English Language Quotes”
Our Critical Review
Now, why would you add an old dictionary in a list of the 15 best nonfiction books of all time – especially if it is a dictionary of a single language (no matter how ubiquitous that language is today)?
Well, there are two reasons.
Johnson’s most famous 20th-century biographer, Walter Jackson Bate, put it best when he noted that this dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever.”
The second one is even better: because Johnson’s dictionary was the first dictionary which really attracted people’s attention to why a dictionary is important.
Or, to quote Michael Adams, because it was the book which “stimulated lexicography, raised the status and interest of the dictionary as a literary and cultural artifact, and generated new genres of dictionary.”