A Dictionary of the English Language

From Academic Kids

A Dictionary of the English Language, one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language, was prepared by Samuel Johnson and published on April 15 1755. The dictionary responded to a widely felt need for stability in the language. Calls and proposals for a new dictionary had been made for decades before a group of London booksellers (including Robert Dodsley and Thomas Longman) contracted Johnson in June, 1746 to prepare the work for the sum of 1575. Though he expected to be finished in three years, it took Johnson nearly nine years to complete. Remarkably, he did so singlehandedly, with only clerical assistance to copy out the illustrative quotations that he had marked in books. Johnson prepared several revised editions during his life.


Previous dictionaries

There had been several 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 were as comprehensive in breadth or style as Johnson's.

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 version

The dictionary has a word list of about 40,000 words. An important innovation of Johnson's was to illustrate the meanings of his words by literary quotation, of which there are around 140,000. Most frequently, Johnson quoted Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. 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 many of his definitions. Among the best known are "Excise: a hateful tax levied upon commodities…"; "Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge…"; and "Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people".

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". His dictionary was unashamedly prescriptivist and linguistically conservative, advocating traditional spellings, eg. olde, rather than the simplifications that would be favoured 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. As of 2002 a first edition might sell for US$25,000 to US$30,000, but many later editions and facsimiles have appeared. In 1995 in the UK, a facsimile of the first edition cost 200 (approximately US$300). Contemporary selections from Johnson's dictionary are available in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, ISBN 0802714218.

A CD-ROM version is currently available for IBM PC compatibles running Microsoft operating systems from Cambridge University Press, featuring the first (1755) and fourth (1783) editions, viewable in both facsimile and searchable text form.



  • James L. Clifford, Dictionary Johnson: Samuel Johnson's Middle Years (1979)
  • Henry Hitchings, Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World (2005)
  • Jack Lynch, ed., Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work that Defined the English Language (2002)


  • The Johnson Dictionary project [1] (http://www.fab24.net/jd100203/)
  • "Words count" from The Guardian 2nd April 2005 [2] (http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1449513,00.html)
  • Brief history of English lexicography [3] (http://angli02.kgw.tu-berlin.de/lexicography/data/b_history.html)

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