The Meaning and Origin of ‘Patriotism is the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the misconceptions surrounding one of the most famous pronouncements on patriotism

Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was a curious man. The one thing everyone knows him for, compiling the first English dictionary, is something he didn’t do: dictionaries of the English language were well-established by the time Johnson’s monumental achievement appeared in print in 1755. His Dictionary of the English Language did, however, raise the bar considerably where English lexicography was concerned, even if, as Blackadder observed, he left ‘aardvark’ out.*

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Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets: Criticism on Principle

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Dr Johnson’s witty and penetrating critical biographies of the great and good

By 1779, Samuel Johnson had attained that title by which he would become familiarly known: ‘Dr Johnson’. He wasn’t ‘doctored’ when he completed his most defining work (‘defining’ in every sense), the Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755. But when he came to write his Lives of the Poets, just five years before his death, he had become the era’s most celebrated man of letters, with an annual pension from the state to honour his services to scholarship and literature, and a reputation – and, indeed, a celebrity status – that continues to dwarf that of all other eighteenth-century writers. Who can picture Henry Fielding, or envisage Samuel Richardson? But Johnson, with his one-line pronouncements on everything from London to literature, death to dictionaries, remains remarkably alive to us.

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December 13 in Literary History: Samuel Johnson Dies

The most significant events in the history of books on the 13th of December

1784: Samuel Johnson dies. Among the books he planned to write, but died before he got a chance to undertake them, Dr Johnson listed a cookbook set out ‘upon philosophical principles’ and a history of his melancholy. He did, of course, manage to complete his groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a book that is often very funny, as well as being informative, scholarly, and educational. 

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Five Fascinating Facts about Samuel Johnson

The life of Dr Johnson, told through five pieces of biographical trivia

1. Samuel Johnson was known to drink up to 25 cups of tea in one sitting. Johnson (1709-84) took his eating and drinking seriously, as his prodigious tea habit testifies. According to his first – and still most celebrated – biographer, James Boswell, ‘Doctor’ Johnson (he only acquired the first of his honorary doctorates in 1765, ten years after his famous dictionary was published) would refuse to listen to anyone else at the dinner table until he had satisfied his appetite, ‘which was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible.’ Johnson is reckoned to have been an alcoholic, too. These days, we might say he had an addictive personality: addicted to drink (possibly), to eating, to reading (ever since he first read and fell under the spell of Hamlet as an eight year-old, while living above his father’s bookshop in Lichfield), and – above all – to work. He also collected orange peel, possibly for some (unknown) medicinal remedy. (When Boswell pressed him for more details, the good doctor replied, ‘Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.’)

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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.

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