"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
Samuel Johnson: what's in his dictionary?
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
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...
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
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”.