Dr Johnson defines…

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This week’s historical laugh, devised as ever by author and historian Eugene Byrne, explores Johnson’s Dictionary, a humorous work written by Dr Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, which remains popular to this day…

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DULL: Not exhilarating; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.

MONSIEUR: A term of reproach for a Frenchman.

MUSHROOM: An upstart, a wretch risen from the dunghill; a director of a company.

NETWORK: Any thing reticulated, or recussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

NOVEL: A small tale, generally of love.

PATRON: One who countenances, supports or projects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.

SHABBY: [a word that has crept into conversation and low writing, but ought not to be admitted into the language.] Mean; paltry.

TO WORM: To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under the tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.

The story

Ever since Dr Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) published his magisterial Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, people have had fun seeking out the more bizarre or humorous definitions in the 43,000 words it listed.

There’s a danger, though, that the countless books, articles and web pages quoting his more eccentric definitions will lead posterity to believe that it wasn’t a completely serious work, but a collection of curmudgeonly libels.

But Johnson’s Dictionary was in fact a work of formidable scholarship, the product of nine years’ work by Johnson and a small army of assistants. One of its most important innovations was its use of literary quotations (lots of Shakespeare and Milton) to illustrate the usage of words, so for instance:

PENSION: 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.

‘A charity bestowed on the education of her young subjects has more merit than a thousand pensions to those of a higher fortune’. – Addison

(Actually, Johnson later accepted a pension of £300 a year from George III, given in appreciation of the Dictionary. It allowed him to live in modest comfort for the rest of his life – but he refused to change the definition in later editions.)

There had been other dictionaries before and since, but Johnson’s remained the most popular, and the most widely consulted for well over a century until the more up-to-date and utterly clinical Oxford English Dictionary appeared in the late 19th century.

Dr Johnson remains famous/notorious for his several uncomplimentary comments on Scotland and its people. (“The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England.” Or, of an inn in Bristol: “Why, it was so bad that Boswell wished to be in Scotland!”) And probably the most quoted definition in the entire Dictionary is:

OATS: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

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… which is generally taken as yet another Johnson dig at the Scots, but actually, it probably wasn’t. Johnson was always making disapproving remarks about Scotland to his Scottish friend and biographer James Boswell, but the Dictionary doesn’t appear to have any digs at the Scots. And in the mid-18th century, his definition was more or less the literal truth.