Guided Ruminations on Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary

by Sebastián J. Delgado Suárez

Sebastián J. Delgado Suárez, a history major at the University of Central Florida, wrote this reflection for an independent study course during the Fall 2021 semester.

I preface this by asserting that this is not by any means a sob story. This, instead,
is the magnum opus of the Samuel Johnson Dictionary Project, but it also speaks to Dr.
Johnson’s relatability. This paper aims to pay tribute to an influential historical figure
and to recount my experiences as a proofreader in the Samuel Johnson Project.
Before the project, I had familiarized myself (superficially) with Samuel Johnson
because the Chief Justice of the United States, John G. Roberts, Jr., has been a Johnson
devotee since his days as an undergraduate student at Harvard College.1 As a follower of the Chief Justice, I learned of his adulation for Dr. Johnson. As a fun fact, the Chief
Justice’s devotion to Dr. Johnson was such that he was regularly known to quote him to
his peers at Harvard College.2 Today, many years after his undergraduate days, the Chief
Justice has a yearly tradition of rereading one of Dr. Johnson’s poems.3 I must confess
that my aspiration to reach the Chief Justice’s successes influenced me to engage in the
independent study centered on Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.


Dr. Johnson and his work are associated with knowledge, success, and
immortality. But his early life was not anything of the sort. One of his major works, The
Vanity of Human Wishes, deals with nothing but the vicissitudes of life, particularly its
lowest points. Here, Dr. Johnson’s path becomes most commensurate with mine, as I relate to his woes and tales of failures and disappointments. A line that resonates with
me (and it is difficult to choose just one) is the following: “With listless eyes the dotard
views the store, He views, and wonders that they please no more; Now pall the tasteless
meats, and joyless wines, And Luxury with sighs her slave resigns.”4 This represents the
dichotomy of Dr. Johnson’s life: a legacy marked by successes, but mountains of defeats
before that. This is further described in an entry by Dr. Johnson’s House—an
independent museum dedicated to preserving Dr. Johnson’s legacy and honoring his
intellectual acuity. The entry describes Dr. Johnson’s many defeats, including his
inability to finish education at Pembroke College, Oxford because of his parents’ inability to pay, his failed school project, among others.5 But then came the Dictionary. And as I learned in the project, Dr. Johnson had compiled and published this expansive project by 1755.6 Impressively, that once-beaten man (beaten by life’s many challenges) is deemed a legendary, dare I say immortal, lexicographer. Perhaps his renown came not from a revolutionary undertaking (as other lexicographers had preceded Dr. Johnson), but it came from his “witty definitions.”7 What is more, Dr. Johnson’s “little critical essays
about lexical form, meaning, and usage—talk in voices big enough to carry across the
centuries.”8 I think that notion is reinforced by the massive project we undertook during
this semester: publishing Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary online.


Dr. Johnson was undoubtedly a force of nature. But it begs the question of whether this
massive treatise in language is worth being uploaded to the web, that is, a user-friendly
online version of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. I will answer this with some bias, but I hope
this will convince others of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary’s worth. As such, it is important to
revisit the effects of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary and build off them.

I mentioned earlier that the Chief Justice of the United States, John G. Roberts, Jr., is an avid Johnson-head,9 so, it is easy to see the sprawling reach of Dr. Johnson’s
works. It certainly is not limited to language or prose lovers, but it reaches diverse
professions; it could be said that Dr. Johnson and his works are ubiquitous.10 With that,
it is nearly obvious that everyone—regardless of background, literacy, or knowledge of Dr. Johnson—should have access to his dictionary, because he aimed to create knowledge through his dictionary. (“Johnson inserted dictionaries into literary culture: He convinced readers that perfect cultivation of the human mind required a dictionary,
preferably his Dictionary, not merely as a work of reference, but as a book worth reading for its own sake”).11 But there are difficulties: the price of the printed work and the use of antiquated language.

After a quick web search, I found Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary for retail at Amazon—
a leading bookseller. There are varied prices, but the common ones range from the $20
to $50 range. This is a considerable amount of money, especially for college students like me. Our project, however, seeks to remedy this issue and places the dictionary online free of charge.

Another issue our project seeks to eradicate is the arcanum of the old English language, particularly the old forms of letters. If not familiar with these differences, the reader will struggle. Our project, by doing away with the old styles of letters, creates a user-friendly version of this revered dictionary.


Now that it is clear this project is worth every amount of effort, I would like to
describe some of the activities I carried out to further the project. My work was
exclusively in the proofreading aspect of the project. As such, I dealt with the careful
reading of the words. Then, I would leave comments with suggestions for the XML
editors. The XML editors would take these and do the behind-the-scenes work that
appeared in our online database. As a proofreader, I ensured that our transcriptions were correct so that the high-quality work UCF is known for is showcased throughout the project. The collaboration between proofreaders and XML editors enabled this. For me, this project provided me with an opportunity to be a more deliberate reader, with a sharp focus on detail. Granted, I wish I could have done more for the project, but the thesis in the background precluded me from doing as much as I wanted.

In terms of what this project did for me, it is difficult to point to just one benefit,
for the project assisted me in sundry aspects. I will, however, point to one of the most
important benefits, which was expanding my vocabulary through the proofreading
process. A goal I had before the project’s beginning was to diversify my vocabulary because I often think that my writing contains repetitive words and turns of phrases.
Working with Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary allowed me to do just that, as there were some
words I was unfamiliar with. In fairness, some of these words are deemed archaic—and
not recognized by word processors—but that is the beauty of the project: It teaches us
new words so that we can employ them and hopefully resurrect them. And I have luckily
been able to diversify my vocabulary. Also, learning Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (and his
style) let me get close to my goal of resembling some of the Chief Justice’s academic and professional achievements. I was also able to get close to Dr. Johnson’s goal, which is to read the dictionary as if it were a literary piece itself, not just a reference guide.12 That I can attest to, as I enjoyed reading the dictionary for the sake of reading it, not just because of the proofreading. In truth, it was an entertaining read, and now I have a better appreciation for the English language and its prose.

1 David von Drehle, “The Incredibly Shrinking Court,” TIME Magazine, October 11, 2007,,33009,1670489,00.html.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid. The poem is the one I discuss in Section I, The Vanity of Human Wishes.

4 Samuel Johnson, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” in The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, Imitated, ed. Poetry Foundation, accessed December 7, 2021,
5 “Samuel Johnson,” Dr. Johnson’s House, accessed December 8, 2021,
6 Ibid.
7 Michael Adams, “What Samuel Johnson Really Did,” Humanities 30, no. 5 (September 2019):
8 Ibid.

9 This term is of my own creation as I could not find an official term for Dr. Johnson’s disciples.
10 An everyday encounter people had with Dr. Johnson was through a popular meme used to communicate one’s shock at an event.
11 Adams, “What Samuel Johnson Really Did.”
12 See Adams, “What Samuel Johnson Really Did.”