A Dictionary of the English Language

Published on 15 April 1755 and written by Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, sometimes published as Johnson's Dictionary, is among the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

Calls and proposals for a new dictionary had been made for decades by those who wanted to make fast the English language. A group of London booksellers (including Robert Dodsley and Thomas Longman) contracted Johnson in June, 1746 to write a dictionary for the sum of 1500 Guineas (£1,575).

Johnson took nearly nine years to complete the work he expected to be finished in three years. Remarkably, he did so single-handedly, with only clerical assistance to copy out the illustrative quotations that he had marked in books. Johnson wrote several revised editions during his life.


A hundred years earlier, books had been regarded with near veneration, but by the mid-eighteenth century this was no longer the case. The rise of literacy among the general public, combined with the technical advances in the mechanics of printing and bookbinding, meant that for the first time books, texts, maps, pamphlets and newspapers were widely available to the general public at a reasonable cost. Such an explosion of the printed word demanded a set pattern of grammar, definition, and spelling for those words. This need demanded a dictionary—an authoritative dictionary of the English language unlike any ever seen before; And it was in 1745 that a consortium of London's most successful printers, for none could afford to undertake this alone, set out to fill and capitalise on, this need by the ever increasing reading and writing public.

Contrary to what many think, Johnson's dictionary was neither the first English dictionary, nor among the first dozen; over the previous 150 years upwards of twenty dictionaries had been published in England, the most ancient of these being a Latin-English "wordbook" by Sir Thomas Elyot published in 1538.

The next to appear was by Richard Mulcaster, headmaster, in the year 1583. Mulcaster compiled what he termed "a generall table [of eight thousand words] we commonlie use...[yet] It were a thing verie praise worthy...if som well learned...would gather all words which we use in the English tung...into one dictionary...

In 1598 came the publication of an Italian-English dictionary by John Florio. It was the first English dictionary to use quotes ("illustrations") to give meaning to the word; surprisingly, in none of these dictionaries so far, were there any definition(s) of actual words.

This was to change, to a small extent, in schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey's "Table Alphabeticall", published in 1604. Though it contained only 2,449 words, and no word beginning with the letters W, X, or Y, this was the first monolingual English dictionary.

Several more dictionaries were to follow: dictionaries written in Latin, English, French and Italian prior to Johnson. Benjamin Martin's Lingua Britannica Reformata (1749) and Ainsworth's Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (1737) are both significant, in that they define entries in separate senses, or aspects of the word. In English (among others) John Cowell's Interpreter, a law dictionary, was published in 1607, Edward Phillips' The new world of English words came out in 1658 and a dictionary of 40,000 words had been prepared in 1721 by Nathan Bailey, though none was as comprehensive in breadth or style as Johnson's.

The trouble with these dictionaries was that they tended to be little more than poorly organized, poorly researched, glossaries of "hard words"; words that were technical, foreign, obscure or antiquated. But perhaps the greatest single fault of these early lexicographers was, as one historian put it, that they "failed to give sufficient sense of [the English] language as it appeared in use. In that sense Dr. Johnson's dictionary was the first to comprehensively document the English lexicon.

Johnson's preparation

Johnson's dictionary was prepared at 17 Gough Square, London, an eclectic household, between the years of 1746 and 1755. By 1747 Johnson had written his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, which spelled out his intentions and proposed methodology for preparing his document. He clearly saw benefit in drawing from previous efforts, and saw the process as a parallel to legal precedent (possibly influenced by Cowell):
"I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words."

Johnson's Plan was patronized by Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield but not to Johnson's pleasure. Chesterfield did not care about praise, but was instead interested by Johnson's abilities. After seven years from first meeting Johnson to go over the work, Chesterfield wrote two anonymous essays in The World that recommended the Dictionary. He complained that the English language was lacking structure and argued:

"We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in times of confusion, and chose a dictator. Upon this principle, I give my vote for Mr Johnson to fill that great and arduous post."
However, Johnson did not appreciate the tone of the essay, and he felt that Chesterfield did not complete his job as the work's patron. In a letter, Johnson explained his feelings about the matter:
"Seven years, my lord, have now past since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before. . . . Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.

The Text

A Dictionary of the English Language was somewhat large and very expensive. Its pages were 18 inches (46cm) tall and nearly 20 inches (50cm) wide. The paper was of the finest quality available, the cost of which ran to nearly £1,600; more than Johnson had been paid to write the book. Johnson himself pronounced the book "Vasta mole superbus" ("Proud in its great bulk"). No bookseller could possibly hope to print this book without help; outside a few special editions of the Bible no book of this heft and size had even been set to type.

The title page read:

of the
English Language:
in which
The WORDS are deduced from their ORIGINALS,
EXAMPLES from the best WRITERS.
To which are prefixed,
In TWO Volumes

The words "Samuel Johnson" and "English Language" were printed in red; the rest was printed in black. The preface and headings were set in 4.6mm "English" type, the text - double columned - was set in 3.5mm pica. This first edition of the dictionary contained a 42,773 word list, to which only a few more were added in subsequent editions. An important innovation of Johnson's was to illustrate the meanings of his words by literary quotation, of which there are around 114,000. The authors most frequently cited by Johnson include Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. For example:


Wealth; riches; affluence

"There in full opulence a banker dwelt,
Who all the joys and pangs of riches felt;
His sideboard glitter'd with imagin'd plate,
And his pround fancy held a vast estate."
-- Jonathan Swift

Furthermore, Johnson, unlike Bailey, added notes on a word's usage, rather than being merely descriptive.

Unlike most modern lexicographers, Johnson introduced humour or prejudice into quite a number of his definitions. Among the best known are:

  • "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"
  • "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"

A much less well-known example is::

  • "Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman"

On a more serious level, Johnson's work showed a heretofore unseen meticulousness. Unlike all previous proto-dictionaries that had come before, painstaking care went into the completeness when it came not only to "illustrations" but to definitions as well:

  • The word "turn" had 16 definitions with 15 illustrations
  • The word "time" had 20 definitions with 14 illustrations
  • The word "put" ran more than 5,000 words spread over 3 pages
  • The word "take" had 134 definitions, running 8,000 words, over 5 pages

The original goal was to publish the dictionary in two volumes: A-K and L-Z, but that soon proved unwieldy, unprofitable, and unrealistic. Subsequent printings ran to four volumes; even these stacked one on top of the other stood 10 (25.4cm) inches tall, and weighed in at nearly 21 pounds (9.5kg). In addition to the sheer physical heft of Johnson's dictionary, came the equally hefty price: £4/10/-. (equivalent to £675 in 2005). So discouraging was the price that by 1784, thirty years after the first edition was published, when the dictionary since run through five editions, only about 6,000 copies were in circulation - an average sale of 200 books a year for thirty years.

Johnson's etymologies would be considered poor by modern standards, and he gave little guide to pronunciation; one example being "Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. It is pronounced coff". Much of his dictionary was unashamedly prescriptivist, and it was also linguistically conservative, advocating traditional spellings, for example olde, rather than the simplifications that would be favoured 73 years later by Noah Webster.

In spite of whatever shortcomings it might have had, the dictionary was far and away the best of its day, a milestone in English-language lexicography to which all modern dictionaries owe some gratitude. Johnson's dictionary was still considered authoritative until the appearance of the Oxford English Dictionary at the end of the nineteenth century.

The first edition of the dictionary appeared in two folio volumes.

Critical response

Marguiq Nicolina, President of the Accademia della Crusca, claimed the Dictionary as a "very noble Work" that would be "a perpetual Monument of Fame to the Author, an Honour to his own Country in particular, and a general Benefit to the Republic of Letters throughout all Europe.

In Popular Culture

The dictionary is heavily featured in the Ink and Incapability episode of Blackadder the Third. Among other things this episode contains a joke about the dictionary not including the word Sausage. In fact, the word Sausage indeed does not appear in the dictionary - Saucisse and Saucisson do, although both only in a military sense. Unsurprisingly, the dictionary also does not contain the word Aardvark.

Modern editions

The Johnson dictionary, available in costly replica editions for some years, was published in an inexpensive hardback edition by Barnes & Noble in 1994.



  • James L. Clifford, Dictionary Johnson: Samuel Johnson's Middle Years (1979)

  • [US edition: ]
  • Lane, Margaret. Samuel Johnson & his World. New York: Harpes & Row Publishers, 1975. 256 pp.
  • Jack Lynch, ed., Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work that Defined the English Language (2002)
  • Johnson, Samuel. Letters Ed. R. W. Chapman, London, 1952.
  • Sledd, James H. and Kolb, Gwin J. Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. Chicago, 1955.

External links

Search another word or see praise-worthyon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature