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Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

15
Feb
2012
 

By Christine Lovatt

We take much for granted these days, but in our line of work, a dictionary is an absolute must! Yet there wasn't such a thing 250 years ago. Lists of hard words had been issued as dictionaries but there was no comprehensive national work.

The English literary world was acutely embarrassed by this lexicographical lack  - after all, the first Chinese language dictionary was written in 900BC. The Italians and the French had their own language dictionaries.

In 1746 Samuel Johnson was thus approached to write an English dictionary - it must have seemed a daunting task! It took nine years to finish. Johnson was one of the most important English writers of his time. The second half of the 18th century is sometimes described as 'the age of Johnson', as, next to Shakespeare, he is the most quoted of English writers.

A couple of years ago I was very privileged to acquire a beautifully bound volume of Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language from a colleague's father. Reading it today, I have to remind myself that this book was written 14 years before Napoleon was born, and before James Cook ever set foot in Australia (hence no mention of koala, kangaroo or boomerang).

Nearly every word is accompanied by a literary text to illustrate the meaning and usage. Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden are extensively quoted. The world then was a very different place. Electricity is defined as "a property in some bodies whereby, when rubbed so as to grow warm, they draw little bits of paper, or such like substances to them."

Reading the font takes some getting used to, as the letter S is sometimes written to look like F, resulting in choir being defined as "an affembly of fingers".

Johnson doesn't hide his own opinion on certain subjects, such as excise: "a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid".

Of his own occupation he writes: lexicographer: "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge".

I feel very grateful to this 'harmful drudge' for writing the first English language dictionary.

Happy puzzling!

Christine

15 Responses to

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

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no1llama said:
February 15, 2012 at 6:27 PM

How lucky you are to have access to such an amazing book. It sounds to me as though the 'harmless drudge' was anything but. It sounds as though it was written to be entertaining as well as educational. I can't begin to imagine the enormity of the task of remembering every word I have ever encountered, then alphabetising them. I have a sneaking suspicion that my dictionary might be a bit shorter than his...

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said:
February 16, 2012 at 12:08 AM

that is great christine you must treasure that it would be one of a kind

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Xrosie said:
February 16, 2012 at 7:46 AM

How fantastic to think that we still need such books instead of the mobiles and computors. Will children of the future be as interested in crossword, reading etc WITHOUT the use of machines?

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February 16, 2012 at 1:30 PM

I love words. My dad was a writer and if I had trouble with spelling and asked him for help he would say "Let's get out the Websters". This wonderful and old (not as old as yours Christine) dictionary was pride of place in the library at home. Maybe this is where my love of the crossword began.

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anaught said:
February 18, 2012 at 10:44 AM

exciting! and interesting to read.

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said:
February 18, 2012 at 11:56 AM

AZrcticprincess reminded me that we, too, had a big old Webster's Dioctionary when I was a kid which I remember my mother using to solve crosswords. Like Christine I wish I still had it but I have no idea what happened to it after my mum's passing. What a great loss!!!!

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February 18, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Throughout my life my family used an old copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. My brother hated it, as the word Zoo was capitalised, and couldn't be used for Scrabble! I still have it, and also the Oxford Modern English Dictionary, which has many contemporary words and phrases. I love it, as it's interesting enough to just browse through and pick up the "new" language that has become the norm. Of course it would be out of date almost as soon as it's printed, but imagine how many different words it has compared to the older version!

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sumac said:
February 20, 2012 at 7:56 AM

What a treasure. Today we have so many new words, it is hard to keep up. I know I need a new dictionary but love my old tattered, well used one.

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sumac said:
February 20, 2012 at 7:56 AM

What a treasure. Today we have so many new words, it is hard to keep up. I know I need a new dictionary but love my old tattered, well used one.

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kragzy said:
February 20, 2012 at 9:12 PM

Perhaps one of the reasons why English was so late in getting its own dictionary is because it is such a young language compared to many others. It is also a great blend of so many language sources - which makes it great for crosswords! I wonder whether crosswords would be possible in other, more homogenous languages?

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deeover said:
February 21, 2012 at 5:16 PM

One of my favourite words from the dictionary is "fustilarian" - A low fellow; a flinkard; a scoundrel. Shakespeare - "Away you scullion, you rapaillian, you fustilarian, I'll tickle your catastrophe" Evokes all kinds of images for me. What a wonderful treasure you have.

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desik said:
February 21, 2012 at 7:01 PM

What a treasure you have. I have all my dictionaries. The oldest one is the smallest pocket dictionary which I took to primary school many, many years ago. The largest dictionary I have is called "Big Dickie".

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said:
February 22, 2012 at 7:07 AM

Your wonderful dictionary and its outdated definition of electricity highlights the fact that a dictionary is not a rule book of language. English is a living language- always growing and changing its subtle and not-so subtle meanings in context of the users intended meaning of the word, as it is accepted by others. Nowadays calling someone a bastard no longer refers to their parents lack of morals but indeed their own. So while a dictionary is a very useful and wondrous tool it, in no way, should limit the full use of our language. So why not make up a new word today. Use it enough and who knows, it may just end up in a new dictionary one day!

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February 22, 2012 at 8:49 AM

Yes Jafa, I know what you mean. Last night on television I heard a chap say that many of the Harry Potter words are now in the dictionary. Who would of thought!

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Phocaena said:
March 02, 2012 at 7:26 PM

I think it may have been in Samual Johnson's dictionary where he defines OATS as food for horses in England and men in Scotland.