Guide to Searching

This website gives you three different ways to look through Johnson’s Dictionary.

  • Browse – pages through the dictionary like the printed book
  • Random – shows words randomly chosen from the dictionary
  • Search – looks for specific terms used in the dictionary

Select the method you wish to use from the “Dictionary” menu in the top toolbar:

Image displaying the dictionary menu at the top left of the website menu
Dictionary menu with options for searching.
How do I browse the dictionary like a book? (viewing facsimile images)

The “Browse” function displays full-page facsimile images of the printed dictionary. To browse the dictionary, choose “Browse” from the “Dictionary” menu in the top toolbar. The title page of the dictionary will display.

From here, you can use the pull-down menus to select a section and a page. Click “Page>” and “<Page” to page forward or backward within each section. Click “Section>>” or “<<Section” to navigate to the following or previous section.

Image displaying a dictionary page
Browse facsimile pages

In Johnson’s time, the letters I and J, and the letters U and V, were considered to be two versions of the same letter. Because of this, the dictionary combines IJ into one section and UV into one section.

These eighteenth-century alphabet conventions affect the alphabetical order of words within these sections. For more information about alphabetical order in the printed dictionary, see the Guide to Dictionary (available from the User Guides menu in the top margin).

The letter X has only one entry that appears at the bottom of the last page of W. This online edition combines WX into one section.

How do I view a randomly selected word?

The “Random Word” function displays a randomly selected word from the dictionary. Click the “Random Word” button to display a new randomly selected word.


All the random words you have viewed will appear in the results list until you navigate away from the page.

Image showing an example of how to search for a random word in the dictionary.
Display a random word.

How do I search for a word?

On the homepage, enter the headword you want to look for in the search box. A “headword” is a word that Johnson defined. Press the magnifying glass icon to start your search.

Image showing the front page of the website
Front page of the website.

When you click the magnifying glass icon on the homepage, or when you choose “Search” from the Dictionary menu at the top of the screen, you will move to a screen that provides many more options for searching and displaying your search results.

Image of the search page
Search page.
What does the pull-down list next to the search bar do?

The pull-down list next to the search bar lets you restrict your search to particular parts of the entry. All of these options accept the * wildcard and regular expressions (regex) except “Foreign” and “Headword sounds like.”

Image of the search menu and its options
Search menu.

You can search for your term in:

  • Headword – the word being defined
  • Full Text –anywhere in the entry
  • –Definition – word definitions (senses)
  • –Etymology –the word’s history
  • –Quotation –illustrative quotations
  • –Author –authors of illustrative quotation
  • –Title – titles of works named anywhere in the entry
  • –Places – places named anywhere in the entry
  • –People – people (historical, mythical, fictional) named anywhere in the entry except authors of illustrative quotations
  • –Usage – Johnson’s comments about the word
  • –Foreign — searches for a particular foreign language–both the language name and foreign words in that language–anywhere in the entry (does not allow * or regex)
  • Headword Sounds like – Soundex search of headwords (does not allow * or regex)
How can I use a wildcard to search for words that begin or end with certain letters, or that contain certain letters?

You can use two different wildcards to search the dictionary, but not in the same search box:

* replaces any number of characters

. replaces a single character

* is a wildcard that represents any number of letters

*apple finds words that end with apple

apple* finds words that begin with apple

ap*e finds words that begin with ap and end with e

*apl* finds words that have the letters apl anywhere in the word (aplusterchapletstaple …)

. is a wildcard that stands for a single letter

b.t finds bat, bet, bit, but

b..t finds bait, beat, beet, belt …

b…t finds beast, befit, besot, beget …

If you are searching for a phrasal headword, or for a word that includes punctuation, use the * wildcard. For example, cuckoo* brings up cuckoo, cuckoo-bud, and cuckoo-spittle, and hippocrates* brings up Hippocrates’s sleeve. These wildcards cannot be combined in a single search field, but you can combine them by using the + button to add additional search criteria (see below). In addition to wildcards, the search fields accept regular expressions (regex) that allow you to specify search patterns in more detail. If you wish to learn about regex, you can find tutorials and “cheat sheets” on the internet. The Headwords field uses regex for mySQL; other fields use regex for Lucene. Because Lucene’s patterns are always anchored, we treat all Headword queries as anchored (beginning with ^ and ending with $) so that queries work similarly no matter which field you’re searching.

Do capital letters matter?

No. None of the searches are case-sensitive.

What do the + and – buttons do? (boolean searching)

The + and – buttons allow you to add/remove additional criteria to narrow or broaden your search. Every time you press the + button, a new row opens up for you to enter a new search term. Pressing the – button removes the row.

Image of the pull-down menu
And Or pull-down menu.

With the pull-down menu on the left, you can indicate whether you want to search for the first term OR the second term, or the first term AND the second term.

If you choose OR, the search will retrieve all results that match either one term or the other term. For example, if you search for words that Johnson considered “ludicrous” OR that contain an illustrative quotation by Swift, you retrieve every entry that matches one of those criteria: 2500 results total

Image is an example of searching with the OR selected
Example search with OR selected.

If you choose AND, the search looks for results that match both search terms. For example, if you search for words that Johnson considered “ludicrous” AND that contain an illustrative quotation by Swift, you retrieve only those entries that match both criteria: 9 results.

Image is an example of search with AND selected
Example search with AND selected.

You can add additional criteria by pressing the + button. Press the – button to delete a row.

The search moves down the list, one criterion at a time, in the order that the search terms appear.

Currently the search does not provide a way to group these criteria so that the steps will be performed in a different order.

How can I search for a foreign language in the dictionary?

To search for a foreign language in the dictionary, choose Foreign from the pull-down menu. A new pull-down menu will appear in the search field; choose the language you’re seeking.

Example search with AND selected.

Why would I switch off criteria, search results, text (and how do I switch them back on)?

Click the check boxes to remove information from the display, in order to give more space to what remains. For example, if you would like more space on the screen to display the transcription, you can click the check boxes for Criteria and Search Results to temporarily clear that information from the screen.

Image of an example search with text only
Example search with Text only.

Click the boxes again to toggle these parts of the display back on

Image of an example of searching with all display options turned on
Example search with all display options.
I can’t find what I’m searching for, yet I know it’s there! What if I don’t know how Johnson spelled or abbreviated something?

Searching in an eighteenth-century text can be challenging for several reasons:

  • Spelling was not completely standardized; the same word (or name) could be spelled more than one way
  • Johnson used British spellings, which differ from today’s U.S. spelling
  • Johnson often abbreviated names and titles

If your search isn’t finding a particular word or name, try searching for part of the word and use a wildcard, rather than searching for the entire thing. For example,

  • sh* in Author will find author names that begin with the letters sh, including the following abbreviations of Shakespeare: Sh.Sha.Shak.Shakes.Shakesp.Shakespear
  • favo* in Headwords will find favour and its derivations, all spelled the British way with -our
  • j*nson in Author will find both Johnson and Jonson
  • adam* in Headwords will find Adam’s-apple

For names, try searching for last name only, using all lower-case letters, and putting an asterisk at the end, e.g. smith* (to find Smith or Smith’s).

For books of the Bible, search for the name of the specific book (e.g., Job) rather than for Bible.

For entries that begin with to or an or the, omit the determiner or particle. For example, to find to pen, search for pen.

We are actively working to improve searching in the dictionary. If you have trouble with a search, please let us know by clicking the “Feedback” tab on the right side of the screen.

Why do I get words in my results list that I did not expect?

Sometimes your search might retrieve words that you do not expect. Usually this happens because there is a second headword, a synonym, or an alternate spelling in the result that does match your search.

For example, a search for words that begin with w (^w) retrieves the entry for quickbeam because the term wild sorb is listed in the entry as a synonym for quickbeam (see yellow highlight in image below). The headword quickbeam doesn’t begin with w, of course, but wild sorb does.

Image of a search example of words starting with 'W'
Example search starting with w.

We are still actively improving the search functions! Please let us know if your search retrieves something unexpected and you can’t figure out why. You can click the “Feedback” button on the right side of the page (circled in red in image above).