Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

As we said in a recent blog about Dr Samuel Johnson, Worcester Cathedral Library has a first edition of the famous Dictionary published in 1755. It has another version published in 1818, revised and extended by Reverend Henry Todd “Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty and Keeper of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Records.”

Nowadays we have a wide choice of dictionaries including the definitive Oxford English Dictionary to answer all our questions. But the OED only began publication in 1894, and was not complete until 1928, so for more than 150 years Johnson’s Dictionary remained the standard work on the language in the UK.

Johnson moved to London in 1737 and quickly made his reputation as a writer for The Gentleman’s Magazine, doing so much and such a variety of articles that even he was unable to make a complete list. In 1746 he was approached by a group of London booksellers to write a dictionary for the sum of 1,500 guineas (£1,575). Johnson said it would take him three years but it actually took seven. He produced it single-handedly, only employing clerks to copy the quotations that he had marked in books.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The Dictionary was very large and very heavy. Its 2316 pages were 46 cm tall and nearly 51 cm wide, roughly the size of a modern local newspaper. Each volume weighed about 5 kg, so both volumes together would just about today be allowed on board a plane as hand luggage! The only books ever printed before of this size and weight had been a few special editions of the Bible.

The double columned text contained a list of 42,773 words. The nearest equivalent was the French Dictionnaire which had taken 40 scholars 55 years to complete! Johnson collected around 114,000 literary quotations, beginning with the great names of Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden but including works of all kinds, religious, historical, scientific, and philosophical. Below is an example of Johnson’s method of defining a word, in this case, the word DICTIONARY, and below that a few words of explanation. Note the use of the old-fashioned long letter s that looks more like an f.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)



     n. s. is an abbreviation for noun substantive (we would just say noun)

     [dictionarium, Latin] means the word comes from a Latin original

     Next comes Johnson’s definition of the word

     And finally three quotations showing the word in use: Sir Thomas Browne, Vulgar Errors Book 1 Chapter 2, published in 1646; Still. means Edward Stillingfleet, theologian

     and Bishop of  Worcester 1689 – 1699; and Watts means Isaac Watts, an eighteenth century nonconformist Christian writer. These are in chronological order and are all

     good examples of good usage.

One of Johnson’s well-known humorous dictionary entries is for the word LEXICOGRAPHER or maker of dictionaries, and in which he defines his own role being that of a “harmless drudge:”


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Johnson took great care with his quotations and also with his definitions. TURN had 16 definitions, TIME had 20 definitions, PUT had 82 definitions spread over 4 pages and TAKE had 134 definitions over 5 pages!

The 1818 edition of the Dictionary held in Worcester Cathedral Library was published in four volumes, and in Reverend Todd’s own words, it contained “numerous corrections and the addition of several thousand words.” Henry Todd was a scholar of note in his own right. He was the Archbishop’s Librarian at Lambeth Palace and had already produced editions of John Milton and Edmund Spenser, and many other works beside.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The illustration shows the four volumes, two in the original binding, and two in a handsome replacement. Although smaller, together they are just as heavy, and are far from being a handy portable set. Among the many additional words in Todd is this definition of OAT in the singular and next to it is Johnson’s famous definition of OATS in the plural:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Todd followed Johnson’s format, apart from the asterisk, which shows that it is an additional word. Dr Johnson apparently thought very little of porridge, that standard item of Scottish diet! But in his famous Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell is at pains to show Johnson’s great and continuing kindness to the five Scottish copyists who worked with him in the production of the Dictionary. This kindness included writing for their own later publications, finding places of employment for them and for one, the expense of burial.

At the end of his preface Johnson said that the Dictionary “was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amid inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow.” It was plainly a source of pride to the great Doctor that he achieved his object while living and working as an ordinary person in the everyday world.

Tim O’Mara








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