Johnson’s Business

Keith Walker

  • A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
    Times, 2558 pp, £45.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 7230 0228 2
  • Dictionary Johnson: Samuel Johnson’s Middle Years by James Clifford
    Heinemann, 372 pp, £10.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 434 13805 3

‘DULL. adj. 8. Not exhilaterating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.’ But they are fun to read, and it’s good to welcome this reprint of Johnson’s first edition (1755).

No dictionary before Webster’s Third International has caused so much comment and controversy, none has been the cause of so many anecdotes and myths, as Johnson’s. Few dictionaries have been so misunderstood and misrepresented. In The American Language H. L. Mencken says repeatedly that Johnson ‘thunders’ or even ‘thunders idiotically’ against such and such a word, when Johnson simply writes ‘a low word’, or ‘a word without etymology’, using a practice common to lexicographers – including the OED and Webster’s Third – of indicating the social status of a word. Mencken confuses Samuel Johnson the writer with Dr Johnson the ogre and bully portrayed by Boswell. James Murray, the author of the OED, succumbed to the same confusion, perhaps, when in a dream he imagined that

Johnson was speaking of his Dictionary and Boswell, in an impish mood, asked ‘What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years’ time a bigger and better dictionary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?’ Johnson grunted. ‘A Dissenter.’ Johnson stirred in his chair. ‘A Scotsman.’ Johnson began, ‘Sir ...’ but Boswell persisted – ‘and that the University of Oxford would publish it.’ ‘Sir,’ thundered Johnson, ‘in order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent.’

Johnson’s Dictionary should be seen (and perhaps this reprint will make the view more possible) as part of various 18th-century endeavours to arrange and make accessible earlier accumulated erudition and experience. Such endeavours include Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728), a work which Johnson drew on for the Dictionary, the French Encyclopédie, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1776), and the more specialised works studied by Lawrence Lipking in his important book, The Ordering of the Arts in 18th-Century England – Charles Burney’s History of Music, for example, Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art and Johnson’s own Lives of the Poets. The Oxford History of English Literature hasn’t ‘superceded’ Johnson’s Lives, and there’s a sense in which we must say that the OED hasn’t superceded Johnson’s Dictionary either.

Two streams contributed to its making, one gentleman and amateur, one professional. In the mid-17th century, the Royal Society established a committee including Dryden, John Evelyn and Edmund Waller, ‘to improve the English tongue’. Nothing much came of this. In 1658, Milton’s nephew Edward Philips had published a New World of English Words which reached its seventh edition by 1720. Swift busied himself with the state of the language in his ‘Proposals for Correcting the English Tongue’ (1712) and elsewhere, hoping that ‘some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever.’ Addison toyed with the idea of writing a dictionary, as Johnson notes in his Life.

Meanwhile, through the 16th and 17th centuries, the English dictionary was slowly developing. Previous English dictionaries had developed from Old English glosses to Latin texts, arranged in rough alphabetical lists, and from Latin-English dictionaries, to lists of hard words, to attempts early in the 18th century to record every word in the language. A simple record, with some jumbled senses, was all that was given by Nathaniel Bailey, Johnson’s immediate predecessor. In his 1736 edition, Bailey had 60,000 entries, about half as many again as Johnson.

In 1747, Johnson, disappointed in his hopes of producing the edition of Shakespeare for which he had issued ‘Proposals’ two years before, published the Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language. This proposed ‘to preserve a purity and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom’. He was later to modify this prescriptive position.

Johnson proposed two decisive innovations in English lexicography, which he carried through with triumphant success. He himself would read the literature of the language, select words, and display them in their contexts by way of illustrative quotations, and he would order and number the senses of words.[1]

Preparing for his dictionary, Johnson single-handedly read almost the whole of English literature since the time of Sidney and Spenser. (Even if he had wanted to go back earlier, there were no reliable editions.) He read Spenser complete. Sidney’s Arcadia. Shakespeare complete. Raleigh’s History of the World. Bacon complete. The Bible. Sir Thomas Browne complete. Milton, including the prose works. Cowley, Waller and Denham. Dryden, including the prose works and the translations. Samuel Butler complete. Pope complete, including the Iliad and the Odyssey. Addison complete. Steele complete. Swift complete. Prior, Gay and Arbuthnot. Thomson’s Seasons. For theology he went to Hooker, Tillotson, William Law and Robert South. For technical and ‘philosophic’ (i.e. scientific) expressions he went to John Ray’s Wisdom of God in the Creation, Grew’s Cosmologia Sacra, William Derham’s Physico-Theology, Thomas Burnett’s Theory of the Earth, Richard Bentley’s Sermons on the Boyle Foundations, George Cheyne’s Philosophical Principles, Henry More’s Antidote against Atheism, Matthew Hale’s Primitive Origination of Mankind, William Camden’s Remains, Newton’s Optics and works by Sir Kenelm Digby.

Johnson drew on hundreds of other writers. To illustrate his reading, and use of quotations, consider the case of George Herbert. Herbert was not much read during the 18th century: there was no edition of his works between 1709 and 1799, although he appears from time to time in anthologies, and was regularised for hymn singing by Samuel Wesley, thereby losing much of his characteristic subtlety. Dryden perhaps alludes to his verse when in ‘Mac Flecknoe’ he advises Shadwell:

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[1] Prompted by Johnson’s plan, Benjamin Martin published a Dictionary in 1749 with the senses ordered and numbered, but without illustrative quotations.

[2] Clifford shows how near Johnson came to prosecution for criminal libel.

[3] ‘Notes on Serialisation’, Proceedings of the Oxford Bibliographical Society (5, 1940, 305-22).

[4] Long a quarry for scholarly research, OED itself comes under scrutiny by Jürgen Schäffer in Documentation in the ‘OED’: Shakespeare and Nashe as Test Cases (Clarendon, 176 pp., £11, 0 19 811938 0), which looks at OED’s coverage of Shakespeare, Nashe, Malory and Wyatt, and develops statistical methods which enable us to measure its accuracy in dating.