Interesting Facts about Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary

A short interesting history of Doctor Johnson’s celebrated Dictionary of the English Language

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is his crowning achievement: it is more famous than his one novel (Rasselas) and, although he was also a gifted poet, it is for his lexicography above all else that Johnson is remembered. First published in two large volumes in 1755, the book’s full title was A dictionary of the English Language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. To which are prefixed, a history of the language, and an English grammar. It’s no surprise that it’s usually known as ‘Johnson’s Dictionary’. What follows are some of our favourite interesting facts about Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary – a monumental achievement in English literary scholarship.

Johnson’s wasn’t the first English dictionary: before his, there had been several such works. Richard Mulcaster had compiled a list of English words in the sixteenth century (albeit without definitions), and in 1604 Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall had appeared. Lexicography was as much about borrowing and improving as it was about creating from scratch. Johnson’s Dictionary itself drew heavily on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730), which in turn had relied on John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708), which itself had borrowed generously from John Harris’s An Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1704). But none of these was on the same scale as Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. A far greater size and scope would be what Johnson, in 1755, brought to the table – the ‘table alphabeticall’, that is. It would take him nine years to complete, working with several assistants.

However, Johnson’s wasn’t even the only dictionary to be published in 1755. In the same year, Scott-Bailey’s A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary also appeared. This dictionary borrowed heavily from Johnson’s – Johnson's DictionaryJohnson’s error was to have published a plan for his dictionary eight years earlier. Scott, who wrote this other dictionary, was good enough to acknowledge his debt to Johnson (and, as suggested by the hyphenated name under which it was published, Scott-Bailey’s dictionary also drew on Bailey’s earlier dictionary of 1730; Bailey had died in 1742).

Johnson’s was also the first dictionary to use citations for the words it listed, with quotations from Shakespeare, Spenser, and numerous other literary sources. Indeed, part of Johnson’s intention in writing the dictionary was to help readers to understand the language of the English literary greats. Still, Johnson’s dictionary was far from comprehensive, even by mid-eighteenth-century standards. It contains 42,773 entries, but there were a good 250,000 words in the English language, even during Johnson’s time.

Johnson included no words beginning with X, on the basis that ‘X begins no word in the English language.’ (‘Xylophone’, in case you were wondering, has only been in print since 1866, and X-rays were another thirty years away from xylophones.) Still, this was an improvement on Cawdrey’s dictionary of 150 years earlier, which had failed to include any words beginning with W, X, or Y (Yes, really!)

The famous definition supplied by Johnson for ‘oats’ – ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ – may have owed something to Pliny, who made a similar remark about the ancient Germans. (For more on Johnson’s wit, see our 10 great quotes from Samuel Johnson.)

The oft-repeated exchange between Johnson and the ladies searching for improper or indecent words may be a later invention, although it often does the rounds in lists of facts about Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. The story goes that several cultivated ladies of London society congratulated the great Doctor for having left all indecent words out of his Dictionary, to which Johnson is said to have retorted, ‘Ah, ladies, so you have been looking for them?’ For one, Johnson did include a few words that would have offended the proprieties of prim eighteenth-century ladies, among them bumfartarsepiss, and turd, though sexually suggestive words were left out, including penis and vagina. He included other rude words and expressions, defining ‘to hang an arse’ as ‘a vulgar phrase, signifying to be tardy, sluggish, or dilatory’. Some of the rude words he did include he treated ‘coyly’, to borrow Henry Hitchings’ word: Johnson defined a ‘boghouse’ as a ‘house of office’ and ‘to lie with’ as ‘to converse in bed’.

He also left out aardvark, something which Blackadder would later observe. But, in fairness to Johnson, he could hardly be blamed for this either: the earliest citation for the word is 1785, the year after Johnson died.

If this post on facts about Johnson’s Dictionary has whetted your appetite, we recommend Henry Hitchings’ highly informative and entertaining Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Book that Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World. We have more interesting dictionary facts in this post. You might also like our collection of interesting word facts.

Image: Samuel Johnson’s Folio and Abridged dictionaries together, by Jkarjalainen, 2014; Wikimedia Commons.


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  9. Reblogged this on Willow's Corner and commented:
    I find the history of dictionaries fascinating (call me a nerd, it’s okay) and I have several older dictionaries, grammars, and lexicons that aren’t famous like this. But this is good stuff too.

  10. I am reading Boswell’s biography of Johnson now and it is fascinating. Thanks for another great post!