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"A useful time-capsule of Georgian life": Samuel Johnson and his remarkable dictionary

Samuel Johnson's 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language made a huge contribution to the English language. More than 250 years on, it has become a useful time-capsule of 18th-century life. Author Henry Hitchings reveals what its definitions tell us today

A stained glass portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson in 17 Gough Square, London Inns court c1989.
Published: June 6, 2022 at 4:00 pm
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When Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, it was neither the first work of its kind nor even the most comprehensive, yet its erudition, detail and authoritative manner ensured that it became a pillar of British culture. The key to its appeal lay in Johnson’s decision to extract his word list from the literature of the previous 200 years. The dictionary’s definitions are buttressed with illustrative quotations from some 500 authors, ranging from Shakespeare to Milton to Swift, and these combine to make it an anthology of quotable sentiments.
The dictionary is a testament to the tastes and values of the age in which it was produced. Sometimes Johnson’s personal opinions colour his definitions – not all his contemporaries would have agreed that luggage is “any thing of more bulk than value” or that a distiller is “one who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits”. Yet far more often the dictionary documents the shifting boundaries of 18th-century society and thought. When Johnson explains that a novel is “a small tale, generally of love”, he alerts us to the low esteem in which prose fiction was held by his learned peers, while his definition of money as “metal coined for the purposes of commerce” is a reminder that paper currency was then a recent and quite unpopular development.

Samuel Johnson: what's in his dictionary?

The word commerce is one that crops us repeatedly: the dictionary testifies to the march of Georgian commercialism. London’s commercial fashions, for instance, are the province of Joseph Addison, Johnson’s favourite diarist of urban pretentiousness. Addison is hot on modish contemporary slang (fiddlefaddle, wiseacre, incog as a short form of incognito) and on modish phenomena (the chop-house, the sofa, the practice of eating snails). It is to the quotable essayist that Johnson owes his entries for whitewash, “a kind of make-up used by women who wished to make their skin look fair”, and for modesty-piece, a word Addison coined to describe the lace which concealed the more exciting parts of women’s breasts.

How long did it take Dr Johnson to compile his dictionary?

Dr Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, but how long did this mammoth text take him to compile?
Asked to make a new dictionary in 1746 by a group of booksellers, Dr Samuel Johnson saw his role as to “remove rubbish” from the paths of learning. It took him and six assistants between eight and nine years to compile 42,773 words, complete with supporting quotations. The word ‘take’ needed five pages and 134 definitions. One wonders if ‘taking the biscuit’ was in there.

Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. Compare that to the equivalent French dictionary, which required over half a century of work from 40 scholars, and the scale of his achievement becomes clear. His lexicon was by no means complete, though, as it included only a fraction of English words. Johnson left out X entirely, saying: "X is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

His little nuggets of humour highlighted the flaws in his method. He defined ‘oats’ as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” and under ‘dull’ he put: “Not exhilarating, not delightful, as ‘to make dictionaries is dull work’.”

This answer was taken from BBC History Revealed Magazine

Johnson records plenty of other fashions and innovations: the toyshop, mezzotints, spa towns, the tobacconist (where once the word had signified a tobacco addict, it now denoted a vendor), the newspaper advertisement, the shoeblack, the mania for tulips, and the cosmetic beauty-spot. In an oblique comment on the contemporary rage for vases – such a boon to that other famous native of Staffordshire, Josiah Wedgwood – he defines vase as “generally a vessel rather for show than use”.
He also notes the phenomenon of the umbrella, a “skreen [sic] used in hot countries to keep off the sun, and in others to bear off the rain”. Umbrellas were not exactly new (Defoe had equipped Robinson Crusoe with an umbrella made of goatskin in 1719), but they were rarely used as a form of protection against British rain until the late 18th century. The philanthropist Jonas Hanway was supposedly the first Londoner to carry one for such purposes, in the early 1750s, and was mocked for doing so.
As it happened, Hanway was one of the many eminent figures with whom Johnson tangled. Hanway liked to warn of the dangers of drinking tea, claiming it was “pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation”. To Johnson this seemed risibly wrong-headed; he was pleased to pronounce himself a “hardened and shameless tea-drinker”.
Yet although it was the fashion for tea-drinking that mainly drove demand for another fruit of the colonies, sugar (which Johnson defines as “the native salt of the sugar-cane, obtained by the expression and evaporation of its juice”) it was coffee that proved the more remarkable phenomenon of the age. Johnson gives a clue to this when he defines coffeehouse as “a house of entertainment where coffee is sold, and the guests are supplied with newspapers”. It was this relationship between coffee and entertainment that made it such a potent force.
From his definition of cricket – 'a sport, at which the contenders drive a ball with sticks in opposition to each other' – we can infer that he never saw it played...
Coffee was first imported to Europe from Yemen in the early part of the 17th century. The first English coffee house opened in 1652; by the middle of the following century there were several thousand in London. Coffee houses were meeting places, where customers – predominantly male – could convene to discuss politics and current affairs. By the time of the dictionary they were not so much gentlemanly snuggeries as commercial exchanges, often doubling up as libraries or theatres. They were centres, too, of political opposition, and, as they were open to all ranks and religions, they allowed a rare freedom of information and expression. Sceptics like Hanway may have been troubled most of all, then, by the capacity of tea and coffee to act as social lubricants.
Changes in 18th-century leisure threatened the traditional structures of class and faith. For instance, the rising popularity of sports like football and cricket cut across social divides, and reflected the increasing commercialisation of leisure. Matches were money-making spectacles, calculated to attract a paying audience, many of whom would also gamble on the outcome. In defining sport as “diversion of the field, as of fowling, hunting, fishing” Johnson chooses to omit the newer, codified sports, but they are noticed elsewhere in the dictionary. From his definition of cricket – “a sport, at which the contenders drive a ball with sticks in opposition to each other” – we can infer that he never saw it played. Yet it was worth including; the crowds at matches were by the 1750s numbering thousands rather than hundreds.
Dr Johnson's Dictionary
Dr Samuel Johnson's (1709-1784) dictionary, which was first published in 1755, on display in London, circa 1990. (Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)
In other areas, he was keener to suggest a precise engagement with contemporary developments. For instance, under airpump – a word that for any art-lover will recall Joseph Wright of Derby’s fine painting An Experiment on a bird in the Air Pump in London’s National Gallery – there is an astonishingly lengthy explanation, complete with a detailed account of the latest improvements in airpump technology. And when Johnson writes in his entry for electricity that “the philosophers are now endeavouring to intercept the strokes of lightning”, he is referring to the recent work of Benjamin Franklin, who flew his kite under a thundercloud to prove that lightning was a form of electricity.
In the field of healthcare, Johnson notes innovations such as dentifrice (“a powder made to scour the teeth”) and the role of the posturemaster (“one who teaches or practises artificial contortions of the body” – a sort of prankish 18th-century Pilates).
Johnson’s 'A Dictionary of the English Language' is not merely a lexicon, but an encyclopaedia in disguise, a time capsule rich in half-submerged historical treasure
But the dictionary does much to suggest a society clinging on to its medieval nostrums. Herbalists, almanacs and alchemy are all mentioned uncritically, and Johnson offers extensive information about the use of old-fashioned remedies – fine clean chalk, for example, is recommended against heartburn, while opium “removes melancholy” and “dissipates the dread of danger”.
Even in civilised Georgian London there were rich pickings for the quack (“an artful tricking practitioner of physick”). Hypochondria was inflamed by the new cult of self-consciousness. No word evoked the vogue for strong personal feelings more keenly than sensibility. Johnson originally glossed it as either “quickness of sensation”or “quickness of perception”, but for the revised fourth edition (1773) he added that it could also mean “delicacy”. In doing so he hinted at the beatification of delicate feelings espoused by most of polite society. Often such phenomena only creep in at the margins of the dictionary.
Johnson says nothing direct about such topical matters as freemasonry or the artistic doctrine of the picturesque. Nor does he include women’s rights or British contempt for the Irish, yet all are subtly present. So is pretty much everything else that was important in the first half of the 18th century, for Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language is not merely a lexicon, but an encyclopaedia in disguise, a time capsule rich in half-submerged historical treasure.
Henry Hitchings is the author of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World (John Murray, 2005).

This article was first published in the April 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine

1755: what’s hot and what’s not?

Johnson's dictionary reminds us of what Georgian society lacked. Some of these deficits are linguistic: you won’t find the word diplomacy (first used by Edmund Burke in the 1790s), although it of course existed as a phenomenon, and neither will you find alcoholic or pessimism or nostalgia.

Readers of the dictionary will not find one of the familiar senses of balloon; the Montgolfier brothers did not stage the first public balloon flight until 1783. Nor is there an entry for oxygen, which was discovered only in the 1770s; Johnson’s contemporaries had to make do with the bizarre theory of phlogiston, a substance allegedly released during combustion and possessed of negative mass. When Johnson defines police as “the regulation and government of a city or country”, the generality of the definition reflects the flimsiness of contemporary law and order. A professional police force was established by Sir Robert Peel only in 1829. At the time of the dictionary the Bow Street Runners, a band of constables formed by the novelist Henry Fielding, had lately begun to patrol London, but elsewhere lawlessness went unchecked.

Other deficits may strike us as less unfortunate. To Johnson and his contemporaries, a rapper is merely “one who strikes”, while a drug is “any thing of which no purchaser can be found”. Best of all, perhaps, a jogger is no more than “one who moves heavily and dully”.

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