It takes an eccentric to read dictionaries for pleasure. I do not use the word insultingly;
I am glad that there are such people out there, and I wish there were more. however, in the category of works that are admired more than they are read—the Faerie Queene and Remembrance of Things Past are typical members—a dictionary must be at the absolute top of the list. While Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, which celebrates its two hundred and fiftieth anniversary this year, is a greatly admired book, it is also surely one of the least read. Yet Macaulay called it “the first dictionary which could be read with pleasure,” and even a short look at it will reveal the truth of his assessment.

The dictionary tradition in English is a recent one. While there were bilingual dictionaries in the sixteenth century (and short word lists earlier than that), the first monolingual dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall, appeared only in 1604. And Cawdrey and the other early dictionaries, such as Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionary of 1623 and Thomas Blount’s Glossographia of 1656, were spare works, consisting chiefly of very short definitions of a relatively small number of words (often “hard words”), with few features we now expect to find in dictionaries. The seventeenth-century dictionaries generally did not attempt to cover the common vocabulary.

This changed by the early eighteenth century. The most important lexicographer
of the period was Nathan (or Nathaniel) Bailey, a schoolmaster whose Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1721 went through some thirty editions; his 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum was a massive folio dictionary that Johnson used as a basis for his own dictionary. Bailey’s works included etymologies, rudimentary pronunciations, proverbs, and many woodcut illustrations. Esoteric Latinisms were excluded, but common words were defined. The Britannicum had about 48,000 entries, many more than any of its predecessors, and even more than Johnson, at about 42,000.

By the time Johnson started work on his project, there had been almost a century of anxiety among the literary elite about the poor state of the English language and about the lack of a comprehensive dictionary, with the latter expected to help the former. Florence’s Accademia della Crusca and the Académie Française were both established for the purpose of creating a dictionary to codify Italian and French, and while they
were unsuccessful at this, they did create major dictionaries that conferred a level of seriousness and prestige on their languages. In 1664 the Royal Society had formed
a committee, its members included Dryden, to improve English. Soon after the turn
of the eighteenth century, both Defoe and Swift had written to condemn aspects of
the language and suggested the formation of an academy like those of France and
Italy. Joseph Addison had even begun work on a dictionary with quotations from literature, and Pope had expressed interest in the project as well. But for various reasons, an English Academy was never established, and no satisfactory dictionary appeared before Johnson’s.

Johnson’s first public statement about the Dictionary was his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language of 1747. This essay appeared as a thirty-four-page pamphlet addressed to the Earl of Chesterfield, whose support Johnson sought. (When Chesterfield, who had largely ignored the project, eventually attempted to claim some credit for
what he saw was going to be a successful publication, Johnson wrote his definition for patron: “One who countenances, supports, or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.”) An ambitious work, the Plan discusses the nature of dictionaries before settling into a discussion of Johnson’s intentions:
He would include common words, though these would be hard to define and based on the quotations he had collected; regard their usefulness as a main criterion for inclusion; treat spelling and pronunciation; show grammatical uses and idiom; consult with advisers when a technical term seemed appropriate for inclusion; stabilize the language. Though the Plan was too ambitious (Johnson, for example, proposed a complete history of every word in English), it was a remarkable document, especially because Johnson anticipated so many of the practical difficulties of the working lexicographer. As the lexicographer and critic Sidney Landau has written, “What the rest of us are forced to learn through years of experience, Johnson realized at once through the brilliance and originality of his mind.”

There are many myths about Johnson’s Dictionary, among them that it broke new ground in lexicography. In fact, it contained no features that did not exist in an earlier dictionary. It is in its scope and quality that the work shines. The inclusion of illustrative quotations, the separate numbering and treatment of multiple senses of words, the explicit labeling of usage registers (“low” or “ludicrous”) all were found, to some extent, somewhere else. Johnson brought all these and more features together for the first time. He also did it vastly better.

Johnson’s sense divisions are particularly fine. The entry for think divides the verb into eight numbered senses: “to have ideas . . . to reason”; “to judge, to conclude, to determine”; “to intend”; “to imagine; to fancy”; “to muse; to meditate”; “to recollect; to observe”; “to judge; to conclude”; and “to consider; to doubt.” The entry is fleshed out with a wide range of quotations, from Locke, Dryden, Addison, the Bible, Shakespeare, Swift, and others. It’s a masterpiece of analysis, all the more striking because
it was almost entirely Johnson’s creation. The entry in Bailey read simply “to meditate, suppose, or be of an Opinion,” with no quotations. Bailey’s entry for take was 362 words long; Johnson’s was over eight thousand, and included 134 numbered senses
and 363 quotations.

* * *

Johnson’s “Preface,” like the Plan, is one of the great works of English prose. He
is quite detailed about the mechanics of the editorial process—the purpose of the quotations, the difficulty of defining common words with equally common words. (Johnson’s definition of network is often cited as a failure in this regard: “any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections,” though it’s hard to see how the word can be defined simply.) He acknowledges the dictionaries he used as sources, a practice rare to this day. Honest and moving about the difficulty of the work in the “Preface,” Johnson takes another swipe at Chesterfield and complains of the physical ailments he has suffered during his work.

While Johnson was not the first person to include illustrative quotations, he did so on a scale far beyond anything that had come before. The Dictionary included over 114,000 quotations; a full third of these were from Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden, helping to establish the importance of literary evidence for dictionaries and the importance of these writers for the future. The quotations themselves make for a great read. From a theoretical standpoint, it was a huge and important advance to realize that the only way of properly treating the language was to take real examples of it and to write definitions based on them. The Oxford English Dictionary, which began to be published 129 years after Johnson’s Dictionary, took this model farthest (it now contains over 2.5 million quotations), but it had, and has, the benefit of a massive worldwide reading program, dozens of editors, and still took forty-four years to complete to Johnson’s nine.

The abundance and quality of the material are often overshadowed by the smattering of humorous definitions in Johnson, of which the most widely known is surely his entry for lexicographer, which begins “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” (This, its common form, is a selective quotation; the entry goes on more helpfully, “that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.”) A pension was “an allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” And oats is “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” All it takes is one or two such entries, especially when combined with the many witty comments Boswell quotes Johnson as having said, to give the impression that the whole work is a frippery. It is not. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is one of the great intellectual achievements of any age. Praised from the moment of its publication, it remains an astonishing work, not least because it is the product of a single, extraordinarily perceptive mind. Johnson had the help of a half-dozen assistants—most of whom, by the way, were Scots—but their role was chiefly to help him manage the quotations, not to write definitions.

Even sympathetic discussions tend to focus on the unusual—the humorous entries, the weird words (bicipitous; jobbernowl; trolmydames). These are crowd pleasing, and easy to discuss, though ultimately not very important. The trend continues: Most modern dictionaries are publicized with their hottest new words, it being impossible to interest the press in the quality of one’s etymology.

When the Dictionary was published, Johnson’s individual effort was particularly praised. The actor David Garrick, a former student, raved that Johnson had “beat forty French, and will beat forty more!” referring to the number of Frenchmen who had taken fifty-five years to do what Johnson had done in nine. But it wasn’t just the speed that mattered; by producing a comprehensive dictionary, Johnson had validated the entire language, showing that it was as important and worthy of study as other European languages.

Johnson’s efforts to “fix” the language are the subject of much interest. In the Plan, Johnson put himself in the role of defender of the purity of English, and stabilizing the language in a proper form was an explicit goal. But after nine years of work, he backed away from this position, declaring in the “Preface” that his job was to record the language rather than to police it. In the end he did not favor an English Academy (he opposed it as foreign to “the spirit of English liberty”). This was not a change of heart, since Johnson still felt that English should be fixed, but an acknowledgment of reality, with the insight gained from years of labor. “The lexicographer [may] be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.”

As with any major work, the Dictionary has errors, which were pounced upon by his detractors. The most widely known anecdote, popularized in Boswell’s biography, concerns his definition of pastern as “the knee of an horse”; when challenged by a lady about this mistake, his explanation was “ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.” It is less widely known that in later editions, he corrected the entry to read “that part of the leg of a horse between the joint next the foot and the hoof.” Similarly, his definition for oats is a joke, not a definition, and not even an original one: As Henry Hitchings points out, the joke is also found in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary, both sources Johnson relied on. Johnson’s etymologies were poor and sometimes ludicrous. Macaulay called Johnson a “wretched etymologist.” But most scholars now agree that his etymologies are in accordance with the standards of the time.

Hitchings, a British writer whose PhD dissertation was on Johnson, has produced an excellent and readable book about the Dictionary. Instead of a chronological arrangement, Hitchings’s chapters are keyed to particular words and begin with Johnson’s definitions. So “to gather“ is about the Planning process; “factotum” about Johnson’s assistants; “pastern” about Johnson’s errors; “nicety” about the treatment (or omission) of vulgar words (buggery, penis, and shit were excluded, though all were common, and in Bailey and other dictionaries; jakes and boghouse were each defined as a “house of office”); “microscope” on technical terms; “weightiness” about the Dictionary’s influence. This arrangement works surprisingly well in practice, with each essay nicely digestible while still leading to a complete picture of Johnson, his book, and his world.

Hitchings’s mistakes are minor and chiefly of omission. He takes the “pastern” story from an obscure edition of Johnson miscellany, which uses the form “ignorance, Madam, ignorance” (without the “pure”); he gives no reason for using this instead of the more familiar Boswell wording. He implies that Johnson’s source for his word list was Bailey’s Universal English Dictionary, though it is now believed that the Dictionarium Britannicum was the one used. He is also imprecise about how words are born, writing that one expression “first entered the language in 1692” or that Thomas Browne “coined the words ‘literary,’ ‘insecurity,’ ‘suicide,’” etc. In most cases we don’t know the actual coiner of a term, so it’s more accurate to say something like “is first recorded in” or “is the first known user of,” so that when research turns up earlier evidence, such as a 1605 example of literary from Francis Bacon, you don’t look foolish.

For those wanting to see Johnson’s original, Octavo Editions has produced a beautiful DVD-ROM of the Dictionary. The entire Dictionary is included, with all front and back matter, and images of the endpapers and even the blank pages; the text is searchable by headword. The edition also includes the Plan. The image quality is extremely high (an expensive “research facsimile” is also available, for those needing even higher resolution), and elaborate detail is given about the binding and the collation of the signatures. The images, which can be stored on a hard drive, are in PDF format, and thus usable with any operating system. The overwritten and inaccurate introduction, by an antiquarian bookseller, is a drawback. While the DVD cannot reproduce the satisfying feeling of reading the large folio volumes,
it’s a wonderful edition to have. (An earlier DVD-ROM published for scholars by Cambridge University Press contains the texts of the first and fourth editions; it is useful but not as pleasant for the general reader.)

Readers wanting a convenient browsable version of the Dictionary will find it in the abridged edition from Johnson scholar Jack Lynch. Lynch’s introduction in particular is the best and most accessible essay of its sort available. The edition includes the “Preface” and the Plan, but omits Johnson’s “Grammar of the English Tongue” and “History of the English Language”; as Lynch rightly notes, “The two are of almost no interest to the general reader (and of little interest even to the specialist).” Lynch also includes useful indexes of quotations from literary authors, and of “piquant” terms in two dozen subject areas such as Books and Writing, Insults, Social Rank, and Warfare. The edition is usable only for browsing because of the great amount of material trimmed: think is included but thought, a fascinating entry with twelve numbered senses, is left out.

The specialist who thrills to an analysis of the “Grammar” and “History” will joyfully receive the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Vol. XVIII: Johnson on the English Language. This scholarly work includes extensively annotated editions of Johnson’s major writings on English, including the Plan, the “Preface,” “Grammar,” and “History,” and “A Short Scheme for Compiling a New Dictionary of the English Language,” an essay preliminary to the Plan. While much of the apparatus is narrowly focused on issues of textual history and the like, the notes to the Plan and “Preface” are richly illuminating for all students of Johnson’s lexicographical work.

Jesse Sheidlower is editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary.