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A 250-year-old page-turner

How Samuel Johnson redefined the dictionary
/ Source: The Associated Press

It began with “a,” ended with “zootomy” and revolutionized the way speakers of English think about their language.

Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language,” published 250 years ago this month, was not the first English dictionary. But it was the first to mix workable, if sometimes idiosyncratic, definitions with illustrative quotations — more than 100,000 of them — showing the words in use.

“It was the first good dictionary of the English language,” said Henry Hitchings, author of “Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World.”

“There had been earlier ones, but they said things like, ‘dog: an animal well known.’ Johnson said, let’s start from scratch.”

By the mid-18th century, British intellectuals were growing embarrassed by the lack of a comprehensive English dictionary. A group of publishers enlisted the 36-year-old Johnson, a poet, essayist and wit renowned for his “massive intellect and prodigious memory,” according to Natasha McEnroe, curator of Dr. Johnson’s House museum in London.

France had already published its own huge dictionary, the result of a half-century’s work by 40 scholars. Johnson was undeterred. “So is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman,” he said. He thought he could finish in three years.

Johnson was paid an advance of 1,575 pounds, the equivalent to at least $185,000 today, to complete the dictionary, which he began in 1746. In the end, it took him almost a decade, years spent working with pen and paper in the attic of his brick house on London’s Gough Square, sinking into debt as the money ran out.

Today, the 300-year-old house is a museum — a rare survivor in an area of London that was heavily bombed during World War II — and tourists can visit the room where Johnson worked at a trestle table, alongside six assistants employed to copy out his definitions.

One-man endeavorJohnson compiled long lists of words, which were cut into strips and arranged alphabetically. He mined the literature of many centuries for his illustrative quotations.

“He wasn’t prepared to share any of the defining with other people,” Hitchings said. “He saw it as this heroic, Herculean task. The result is that the dictionary bears the stamp of his personality.”

The dictionary was published in April 1755 and was an instant best seller despite its cost — 4 pounds, 10 shillings, the equivalent of almost $1,000 today.

Johnson defined 42,773 words. His definitions were succinct, often poetic, sometimes witty and occasionally idiosyncratic. Some reflected his prejudices. He defined oats as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Excise, he said, was “a hateful tax levied upon commodities.”

There are surprising omissions. The dictionary has no entries starting with “X,” a letter Johnson said did not begin any genuine English words. Some words in common usage at the time were omitted, including blond, port and athlete.

Long-gone wordsThen there are words he included that have long disappeared, such as “fopdoodle” (a fool) and “jobbernowl” (a blockhead).

“One of my favorites is ‘anatiferous,’ which means producing ducks,” said Hitchings. “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has only ever been used twice in the printed language — once in text in which Johnson found it, and once in Johnson’s dictionary.”

Hitchings said Johnson’s dictionary helped change the way people think about language.

“The dictionary was a journey for Johnson,” he said. “He started off thinking you can send the language to school, mend its defects. He ended up realizing that part of what makes language amazing is its vitality, its mutability.”

Johnson’s book remained the most authoritative English dictionary until the appearance of the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 19th century, and modern lexicographers acknowledge their debt to him. Hitchings says about 1,700 of Johnson’s definitions are still in Oxford.

“We’re fond of him, and like to think of ourselves as his inheritors — in spite of his idiosyncrasies, which were many, and his prejudices,” said Della Summers, head of the dictionary department at Longman, Johnson’s original publisher.

Johnson says ...
Some memorable definitions from Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language”:

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.

KICKSHAW: A dish so changed by the cookery that it can scarcely be known.

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.

PATRON: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery.

RANT: High sounding language unsupported by dignity of thought.