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What Samuel Johnson Really Did

He Made Dictionaries Matter

By Michael Adams | HUMANITIES, September/October 2009 | Volume 30, Number 5

Samuel Johnson, poet, satirist, critic, lexicographer, and dyed-in-the-wool conservative was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, on September 18, 1709. We are quickly approaching the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth; scholars worldwide have been celebrating throughout the year. If someone’s birthday is worth celebrating three hundred years after the fact, inevitably partygoers will spread their praise pretty thick, as praise for Johnson has been spread since James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791. As a result, legend has sometimes obscured the truth. Among other aspects of his career, Johnson’s contributions to English lexicography are often misunderstood. It serves both Johnson’s legacy and the history of lexicography to revalue his influence on the modern dictionary.

Though he disparaged Johnson’s style, as well as his literary and political judgment, Thomas Babington Macaulay, in the Edinburgh Review in 1831, admitted that, due to Boswell, Johnson would be “more intimately known to posterity than other men are known to their contemporaries.” We tend to presume on that acquaintance. Johnson scholar Jack Lynch anticipated the tercentenary spirit by asserting (in the title of his recent selection) that Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language is the “work that defined the English language.” The English language was doing pretty well before Johnson got involved; nevertheless, he has been taken for the Jupiter of lexicography since before his dictionary appeared in print in 1755. For all the mythology, you’d think English vocabulary had sprung fully formed and irreproachable from his prominent, Augustan forehead.

Johnson may well be the most celebrated lexicographer of English, yet many claims about his lexicography are exaggerated. Conventional wisdom holds that Johnson single-handedly conceived and produced A Dictionary of the English Language. Though he gave up several years of full-time work to the Dictionary, Johnson wasn’t the first professional lexicographer: John Kersey, author of A New English Dictionary, published in 1702, probably owns that distinction. And Johnson did not write his dictionary alone: He had half a dozen assistants, and the history of lexicography tells us that assistants influence dictionary-making more than either eighteenth-century social hierarchies or the Great Author theory behind Johnson’s reputation admits.

Nor was Johnson’s the first dictionary to employ literary quotations to illustrate meaning or usage. Putting aside major early modern dictionaries produced in France, Italy, and Portugal, John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes was, in 1598, the first at least partially English dictionary to use quotations, and by no means the last preceding Johnson. Johnson is also often credited with introducing sense divisions into dictionary entries, but Benjamin Martin had used them in Lingua Britannica Reformata, published in 1749. Martin may have got the idea from Johnson’s Plan of a Dictionary in 1747, for Johnson proposed to “sort the several senses of each word, and to exhibit first its natural and primitive significance,” followed by “its consequential meaning,” and then “the remoter or metaphorical signification.” Whoever came up with it, no one doubts, in retrospect, that it was a good plan.

Johnson is admired for his witty definitions. No horticultural definition of oats for Johnson, but rather the infamous “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Alas, for the mythographers, Johnson was not even the first English lexicographer to write a memorable definition. Everyone knows that Johnson defined lexicographer as ‘harmless drudge’; or, at least, they know that someone did. Well over a century earlier, in 1611, however, Randle Cotgrave, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues gave us “Brunette, brunet, brownish, somewhat browne . . . a nut-brown girle,” a literary allusion (the nut-brown girl is a figure of late medieval balladry) appropriate to a culture less cosmopolitan than Johnson’s. Granted, the harmless drudge is currently a more familiar figure than the nut-brown girl, especially in America. And, importantly, though Cotgrave borrowed a culturally resonant figure to serve his purpose, Johnson invented his: Among early English lexicographers, Johnson was the first to write memorably by design; he was the first to assert the cultural authority of dictionary definitions.

Famously, Johnson established the conservative prescriptive goal of some (by no means all) modern lexicography. As he wrote in the Plan, he proposed to write “a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.” Apprised of pure English by his Dictionary, Johnson’s readers should accept the standard of clear meaning and good usage revealed there. “Our language will be laid down,” he wrote elsewhere in the Plan, “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?” As Macaulay quipped, “When he wrote for publication, he did his sentences out of English into Johnsonese.”

Johnson’s conservative attitude toward English and the dictionary’s role in preserving and protecting the language has attracted many adherents. Johnson was by no means the first English prescriptivist: In 1586, William Bullokar, in Bullokars Bref Grammar for English, suggested that “A dictionary and grammar may stay our speech in a perfect use for euer.” Johnson was, however, the first to write a dictionary explicitly to accomplish prescriptive goals. Once again, Benjamin Martin anticipated Johnson in his 1749 volume Lingua Britannica Reformata, in this case, disapprovingly: “The pretence of fixing a standard to the purity and perfection of any language,” he wrote, “is utterly vain and impertinent.” In the Plan, then, Johnson started an argument about the role of dictionaries in establishing and regulating English usage, one that persists in various, sometimes diametrically opposed, public expectations for what dictionaries should be.

If Johnson’s Dictionary wasn’t the first at most things, why is it so often taken as the original modern dictionary? As Sidney Landau puts it in Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, “Johnson’s Dictionary is not distinguished by its innovations . . . but by the skillful and original execution” of techniques already established, albeit provisionally, in early modern English lexicography. “What Johnson did, he did supremely well,” Landau concludes. And that’s true, partly due to Johnson’s insight and skill: He more aptly identified quotations; wrote reasonably accurate, often elegant, if sometimes controversial, definitions; he was even good at guessing etymologies, though he worked without the benefit of the new philology of Rasmus Rask, Franz Bopp, and the Grimms. Johnson was also notably ambitious, however: his was an Olympian lexicography.

Many (though not all) dictionaries of the seventeenth century, from Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604 and generally considered the first dictionary of English, and Henry Cockeram’s 1623 The English Dictionarie; or, An Interpreter of Hard English Words forward, were schoolbooks compiled by provincial schoolmasters and tutors. Reading was hard and, for many, new, and children in parochial schools needed dictionaries as pedagogical support—dictionaries were means, not ends. Johnson’s was the first English dictionary that clearly aspired to literary distinction, certainly something beyond the schoolroom.

Unlike its predecessors, Johnson’s Dictionary was written on a grand scale, attempting to perfect the dictionary as a type of book and to change the terms on which dictionaries were valued by London’s literati. Word by word, the Dictionary was interesting and memorable. Boswell records that Oliver Goldsmith, author of The Vicar of Wakefield, once remarked to Johnson, “If you were to make a fable about little fishes, doctor, they would talk like whales.” Similarly, and in contrast to earlier lexicography, Johnson’s dictionary entries—little critical essays about lexical form, meaning, and usage—talk in voices big enough to carry across the centuries.

Unlike earlier dictionaries, too, Johnson’s Dictionary was urbane. Johnson assumed levels and types of literacy that seventeenth-century lexicographers could not safely assume, and the purpose, structure, and style of his Dictionary suit the age and place, London, in which it was written, published, and, for the most part, read. Thomas Babington Macaulay accused Johnson of believing, “in defiance of the strongest and clearest evidence, that the human mind can be cultivated by books alone.” Johnson inserted dictionaries into literary culture: He convinced readers that perfect cultivation of the human mind required a dictionary, preferably his Dictionary, not merely as a work of reference, but as a book worth reading for its own sake. Johnson’s great contribution to the history of English lexicography was to conceive the dictionary, not as a schoolroom prop, but as a type of literary work.

Johnson wrote only one dictionary, but in that one he initiated several dictionary genres. Definitions like those for oats, lexicographer, and 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”) were a form of cultural criticism. Of course, most modern dictionaries favor objective definitions written in a dispassionate voice, but Johnson established the oblique traditions of facetious and political lexicography, setting the example for Ambrose Bierce, a century and a half later, in The Devil’s Dictionary and the editors of McSweeney’s, two and a half centuries later, in The Future Dictionary of America, among others. Though Johnson was not the first to employ literary quotations to illustrate usage and meaning, he was the first English lexicographer to conceive entries as necessarily incorporating quotations, the first to concentrate on quotations as an aspect of dictionary structure. His refined use of quotations proposed yet another genre, “the quotations dictionary.”

The quotations prompted Irish poet John Todhunter, in The Cornhill Magazine, to insist in 1898, “There is much good reading in a dictionary.” For some, “the pages of old Johnson, so redolent of ‘the Sage’s’ own burly personality” are attractive especially because of the quotations; though no quotation claims the reader’s attention for very long, it can claim it intensely: “Here is digression! But what of that? One of the charms of reading a dictionary, indeed its most fascinating charm, is that it inevitably leads to that volatile discourse of reason which induces healthy respiration in the mind.” In a 1916 issue of The Athenæum, we learn that “when Browning decided to adopt literature as a profession, he qualified himself for it by studying Johnson’s dictionary from one end to the other. He had in the course of his perusal, we do not doubt, amusement as well as instruction, and any dictionary is good reading to a man like Browning, dowered with the eager and lively mind which sees notable things everywhere.”

The quotations dictionary, as realized in Johnson’s Dictionary and later in the Oxford English Dictionary, is by its very purpose and structure a readable dictionary. (In fact, the account of Browning just quoted appears in a review of the OED, drawing the two dictionaries into the same literary genealogy.) Looked at one way, these dictionaries are thematic anthologies, in which the “themes” are the words and meanings the quotations are supposed to illustrate. Of course, one can peruse the quotations on a printed page without much concern for the rest of the dictionary apparatus. Most readers, however, move back and forth between editorial commentary (definitions, etymologies, recommendations about usage) and the quotations. This is the ultimately satisfying quality of the quotations dictionary. It isn’t merely a reference for looking up words: It invites the reader’s intervention and judgment; it prompts a conversation the content and quality of which depends as much on the reader’s experience, knowledge, and imagination as the lexicographer’s.

The OED was first published (somewhat irregularly) in parts, and those interested in the English language subscribed, as though it were a periodical. As the Saturday Review admitted in 1887, “A dictionary is a book of reference, and under the word book we are told in this volume that a book of reference means ‘a book referred to for information rather than read continuously.’ We doubt not that we shall often refer to the Philological Society’s Dictionary for information, but at present we must except to the definition, having several times taken up this Part with the good intention of making classified and other notes, and reporting thereon in an orderly manner, and after five or ten minutes wholly surrendered to the temptation of reading it continuously.” As a readable dictionary, the OED owed much to Johnson’s example and Johnsonian canons of lexicography.

The OED, which attempts to describe the language as speakers use it rather than to prescribe how they should use it, has not satisfied those who adhere to the conservative linguistic principles espoused by Johnson, those who believe in the possibility of “pure” English, those distressed by language change and inconsistent usage. An anonymous reviewer of the first part of OED (A–ANT) in the Nation, in 1884, announced that “the fault we should find with it is that there has been neglect, comparatively speaking, of authors of the highest class, and too much prominence given to those of an inferior grade” and argued that “the illustrative quotations are, for men engaged in the profession of writing, perhaps the most important part of any lexicon. It is always desirable to ascertain the usage of an age; but it is the usage of its best authors we wish, and not of its poor or poorest ones. To record that best usage is a main duty of any dictionary.” Here, the reviewer reiterates Johnson’s prescriptivism and the value Johnson ascribed to quotations dictionaries in pursuit of standards of meaning and usage.

I was tempted to write that the reviewer merely reiterates Johnson, but there isn’t anything mere about it: Johnson’s language attitudes have been profoundly influential. Many have seen, still see, language change as something to be regretted if not reversed, and they believe that dictionaries should play a role in resisting variation and change. Just as many have rejected Johnson’s attitudes, if not his regret, at least his sense that dictionaries should be instruments of social control. As noted above, Benjamin Martin disagreed, and so did Noah Webster. Considering proposals to establish an American language academy on the French or Italian model, Webster wrote in 1817 in A Letter to the Honorable John Pickering that “analogy, custom and habit form a better rule to guide men in the use of words than any tribunal of men,” and the dictionary’s role was thus limited to informing speakers, rather than extended to regulating usage.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century English lexicography developed partly as a consequence of the argument between those who thought dictionaries should prescribe usage and those who thought they should describe it instead. The OED and its American counterpart, William Dwight Whitney’s Century Dictionary, stood for description. Joseph Worcester, whose dictionaries engaged Merriam-Webster in what is often called “the War of the Dictionaries” (1834–1860) inclined toward Johnson’s position, though he took time to discuss problems of usage in some detail when the Merriam-Webster dictionaries did not. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961, ignited a firestorm of criticism because many thought (incorrectly, by the way) that it was more “permissive” than the 1934 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, with its panel of usage experts and Worcesterian usage notes attached to entries for problematic words, was instituted as a response to Webster’s Third. As its editor, William Morris, announced in the front matter to the first edition in 1969, the dictionary would “faithfully record our language,” but “would add the essential dimension of guidance, that sensible guidance towards grace and precision which intelligent people seek in a dictionary.” Merriam-Webster dictionaries, American Heritage dictionaries, Random House dictionaries, Webster’s New World dictionaries, and Encarta dictionaries all compete (or have competed) with one another partly on the basis of how they represent usage and how they guide it, how they stand for change or against it, how they balance the status of standard American English and other varieties, in other words, how they fit into paradigms Johnson established in 1755.

The argument Johnson started over the dictionary’s public role, though divisive, is not merely divisive, not merely an aspect of the culture wars, but potentially beneficial. Dictionaries position themselves in the debate: Their responses are complex, not knee-jerk expressions of one polar position or the other. For some, disagreement among dictionaries is confusing or, given a certain strain of conservatism, offensive; for others, the disagreements inform a thoughtful perspective on language and its social uses. Johnson was the first language maven, the first to take a leading public role in language criticism. To borrow a rhetorical maneuver from Lynch, he defined the dictionary’s role and value—he made the dictionary matter. That was not a foregone conclusion in the eighteenth century, nor is it today: It will be interesting to see how the dictionary progresses in the Digital Age.

In his 1755 review of Johnson’s Dictionary, in the Edinburgh Review, Adam Smith suggested that “its merit must be determined by the frequent resort that is had to it. This is the most unerring test of its value; criticisms may be false, private judgments ill-founded; but if a work of this nature be much in use, it has received the sanction of public approbation.” Readers still resort to Johnson’s Dictionary—you can do so from any personal computer if you invest in the recent Octavo DVD-ROM facsimile edition. But Johnson’s dictionary is most significant for the way it stimulated lexicography, raised the status and interest of the dictionary as a literary and cultural artifact, and generated new genres of dictionary. Thomas Carlyle suggested of Johnson, in Fraser’s Magazine in 1832, that he was “the synopsis and epitome” of his age. The Dictionary may effectively be the synopsis and epitome of Johnson’s genius.

About the Author

Michael Adams is associate professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington and author of, most recently, Slang: The People’s Poetry (Oxford, 2009) and, with Anne Curzan, the second edition of How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction (Pearson Longman, 2009). Once editor of Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, he is currently editor of the quarterly journal American Speech.

Funding Information

NEH has provided $364,252 in funding for work on the Yale Editions of Samuel Johnson’s and James Boswell’s writings.