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A Critical Examination of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary

For background on this work, see The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to South Park., Jack Lynch, New York: Walker & Company, 2009. p. 124-125.


English Philology



    Ridebis, deinde indignaberis, deinde ridebis, si legeris, quod, nisi legeris, non potes credere. Plinii Epist.


    Verba obstrepunt. Bacon Nov. Org.

W. Flint, Printer, Old Bailey, London.



  1. Letter the First. The Plan of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary
  2. Analysis of the Grammatical Principles of the Diversions of Purley
  3. A Critical Examination of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary
  4. Letter the Second. Mr. Todd, the Editor of Johnson's Dictionary
  5. Letter the Third. Mr. Dugald Stewart, "On the Tendency of some late philological Speculations."




I have long been in possession of your high opinion of the Diversions of Purley; and of your very low opinion of the Dictionary of Doctor Johnson. With respect to the former, we are not, I believe, singular in considering that, as a work of Grammar merely, it stands without a rival. The learning and abilities of the author are generally allowed to have been fully equal to his subject; and even the ardent imagination of Mr. Erskine1 presents no exaggerated picture of the laborious diligence with which Mr. Tooke pursued his philological researches.

This I take to be the general sentiment; and it was not, surely, a very unreasonable expectation that such a work should be regarded in some degree as an authority; that it should be pretty commonly read, and studied, and understood.

I do not know what opportunities you may have had, or what disposition you may have felt, to ascertain the fact; but I can declare for my own part, that I have, in the course of my inquiries, met with ample cause to persuade myself, that if I had asserted a conclusion the very reverse of that which (I confess) I adopted: if I had inferred that because every page of the ΕΠΕΑ ΠΤΕΡΟΕΝΤΑ presents materials for deep reflection, therefore it would not be studied; that, because the reasoning is direct and perspicuous, the language plain and forceful, the illustrations numerous and pertinent, therefore the doctrines would be misunderstood; that because the work absolutely abounds in the most interesting and important discoveries, it would therefore be neglected: if such had been my inferences, I say, I might indeed have been ashamed of my own cynical mordacity, but I should have formed a more accurate estimate of the zeal of this age in the encouragement of curious, original, and profound investigations in metaphysical philosophy.

I have now before me that stupendous "monument of vanished minds," the last variorum edition of Shakespeare; and although six and thirty years have passed since the publication of the far-famed Letter to Mr. Dunning, in which the etymology of the English conjunctions was so firmly established as to preclude the necessity of additional proof; you will scarcely believe it, — but it is an unquestionable truth, — not one single etymology has crept into the brains of one single annotator or commentator upon our great bard; and modern editions of our older dramatists are still continuing to be published by modern editors, with a blind adherence to their blind precursors. You would think me unconscionable, if I were to require from editors of plays that they should seriously bestow their best faculties upon the ΕΠΕΑ ΠΤΕΡΟΕΝΤΑ, with a view to the comprehension of those high metaphysical principles, which may be derived from it; but, I assure you, I found it necessary to acquire some familiarity with this race of writers, before I could satisfactorily account to myself for the perversity, with which they refuse to gather the tempting fruits of etymology, which in that work are so profusely scattered before them. — In proceeding through the "Critical Examination," you will find that I have taken sufficient , if not more than sufficient, notice of this incorrigible set:

Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through, and make a lucid interval.

You probably, as well as myself, have fearfully anticipated that editors of plays are not the only persons willing to evince their inability duly to appreciate the masterly production of Horne Tooke. You must indeed have felt such an apprehension from the moment of perusing the Advertisement of the Reverend Henry J. Todd; an advertisement, which may have been composed in the press-room of the printer; — never certainly amid the records of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

You would observe from that advertisement, that it is Mr. Todd's intention to present us with the Dictionary of Johnson with numerous corrections, and with the addition of many thousand words; and further that emendations are to be admitted from Horne Tooke, and (risum teneas!) from Mr. Malone. — Madame de Stael, who2 is now the Cynosure of the critics, has very oddly — to English ears — combined the names of Milton and Young: this we must excuse in a foreigner, and a lady; but that a learned Englishman should thus jumble a Malone into equal place with a Horne Tooke, does really augur so ill of his discernment and good sense, that the impulse to mirth at the oddity of such a classification of emendators was repressed by my apprehensions of some fatal influence from its absurdity.

Whatever may be Mr. Todd's abilities in explaining the signification of words, I cannot, from the specimen which this advertisement presents, consider him as very successful in the expression of his own meaning. "In these labours also" (he informs us) "it may not be omitted, the plan of Dr. Johnson has been respectfully followed; and if it shall be found that in the construction of the present work the Editor has been at all successful, he must gratefully attribute his success to having built upon so noble a foundation."

I must confess that I am a little at a loss to collect with clearness any thing from this sentence except great humility of profession. Is this, I ask, to be the Dictionary of Henry J. Todd alone, or of Samuel Johnson, merely with the corrections and additions of Mr. Todd? The passage which I have just quoted countenances the former supposition; the preceding part of his advertisement confirms the latter. If, then, Mr. Todd be merely the Editor, what pretence will he have either to the merit or demerit of the construction of the work; unless he not only follow the plan of Johnson in his own portion of the performance, but actually in the execution of his editorial office presume to reduce the original Dictionary of Johnson to the scale which that plan supplies? If he blend, — and probably this is all that he intends, — his own corrections and additions really constructed upon Johnson's plan, (imperfect and superficial as it is) with the original Dictionary in an unaltered or in a partially altered state, it may instantly be foreseen that Mr. Todd is about to present to the world as complete a tissue of discordant materials; of errors preserved and errors corrected; of plan violated and plan adhered to, as the most enthusiastic idolater of confusion can covet or desire.

It is scarcely necessary to apprize you, that all my apprehensions of this incongruous intermixture, originate in the supposition that Mr. Todd really does design to follow strictly the plan, to which Johnson had pledged himself to conform, and that, if I were well satisfied of Mr. Todd's intention to pursue the example, and not the direction of Johnson, my fears on this head would be dissipated in an instant. — I should look forward with composure, if not with perfect apathy, to the production of one uniform and consistent mass of ignorance and absurdity.

As I have already intimated my opinion that this plan, of which so grateful mention is made by Mr. Todd, is in itself imperfect and superficial, it is proper that I should claim your attention to some remarks upon it, notwithstanding it was wholly renounced by Johnson in the preparation of the Dictionary. — That it was so renounced, I shall have very little trouble, in the next place, to convince you.

Every reader of this extraordinary composition must be struck with the deep consciousness, which, it is manifest from the first paragraph to the last, was never absent from the mind of Johnson, of his utter inability to execute a work, undertaken, as he candidly confesses, with no higher expectation than the price of his labour. This consciousness oppressed him at the commencement; and to the very close still clouded his imagination. It must have haunted him at every step of his progress. Having laid it down as a rule for his guidance in explaining the words, "that their natural and primitive meaning should be first exhibited," he had but this choice: — either to renounce the rule, or abandon the Dictionary. He chose the former. — He little imagined that the "origin of ideas" was the proper starting-post of the grammarian, who is to treat of their signs, and of the lexicographer who is to interpret them.3. He had not that rectitude of thought, that well disciplined understanding; he knew he had not the learning requisite to insure his success. He himself acknowledges, "that he found it too late to look for instruments, when the work called for execution; and that whatever abilities he brought to the task, with those he must finally perform it; that to deliberate whenever he doubted, to inquire whenever he was ignorant, would have protracted the work without end, and perhaps without much improvement."

It will try your ingenuity to discover, in this description of his unceremonious neglect of deliberation and inquiry, any very striking proof of a mind, intent (as Johnson professes his mind to have been) upon accuracy. — To proceed, however, with the plan.

"When the orthography and pronunciation" (he informs us) "are adjusted, the etymology or derivation is next to be considered, and the words are to be distinguished according to their different classes, whether simple, as Day, Light, or compound, as Daylight; whether primitive, as to act, or derivative, as Action, actionable, active, activity."

Such according to Johnson, is the first important object of etymology!!

"When this part of the work is performed, it will be necessary to inquire how our primitives are to be deduced from foreign languages, which may be often very successfully performed by the assistance of our own etymologists."

"When the word is easily deduced from a Saxon original, I shall not often inquire further, since we know not the parent of the Saxon dialect; but when it is borrowed from the French, I shall shew whence the French is apparently derived. Where a Saxon root cannot be found, the defect may be supplied from kindred languages, which will be generally furnished with much liberality by the writers of our glossaries."

You have now before you all that I find of Johnson's Principles of etymology: a sad abuse of terms, I do not deny. After stating these principles, however, he confidently proceeds:

"By tracing in this manner every word to its original—"

In this manner! In what manner? Have you caught a glimpse of any manner in which a word is to be traced to its original? Do you discern the least allusion to any manner? Manner and object are by me equally undistinguishable. And here it is incumbent upon me to observe, that in this particular, viz. the etymology, he appears in his Dictionary to have executed all that he has described in his plan; all that he ever considered it to be the duty of an etymologist to attempt. What then I ask, has he attempted? — "Barely to refer us to some words in another language, either the same or similar;" and never dreaming of the necessity of shewing the manner of the derivation, or the meaning of the word in such other language; or even that it was the province of etymology to fix "the natural and primitive signification of words."

An instance occurs to me, (in addition to the number you will find in the Criticism,) which will sufficiently illustrate how imperfect and superficial is such etymology to Johnson's.

"Ablution, n.s. (ablutio, Latin) the act of cleansing.
"Pollution, n.s. (pollutio, Latin) the act of defiling."

Whence ablutio, and pollutio, and what their meaning? The Latin etymologists, to whom the English reader must refer, may perhaps supply an etymology and a meaning for the former, which will account for its application4; but with respect to the latter, they are themselves divided, and it was not for Johnson to compose the strife. We have learnt, then, nothing at all by our consultation of Johnson, except that he probably was as ignorant as those who applied to him for information; and such must be inevitably our fate whenever we resort to a lexicographer whose principle it is to present no better assistance.

Here, then, I take my stand. — With full confidence of your entire acquiescence, and in perfect fearlessness of opposition from any other quarter, I affirm that this "noble foundation" is itself baseless.

"In explaining the general and popular language," continues the Plan, "it seems necessary to sort the several senses of each word, and to exhibit first its natural and primitive signification; as, "To arrive, to reach the shore in a voyage: he arrived at a safe harbour."

This indispensable rule, so hesitatingly advanced, it was not possible for Johnson to observe with the help of such etymology, as I have already shewn you that it was his system to employ; and so crude and indigested, you will not fail to remark, were his principles of language, that, in the very instance which he produces in illustration of his rule, his explanation and example are completely at variance.

Shall I, then, proceed with this Plan? Not, surely, to establish the truth of my assertion, that it is imperfect and superficial, for you must already have condemned me for applying epithets so weak and indescriptive; but it is necessary that I should proceed in pursuit of that other object which I have in view: I mean, an exposition of that other object which I have in view: I mean, an exposition of the strange discrepancies between the Plan and performance.

The subsequent rules then are, to exhibit

2. "The accidental or consequential signification. (5Arrive.)
3. "The remoter or metaphorical signification. (5 Arrive.)
4. "The poetical sense. (5Wanton.)
5. "To the poetical sense may succeed the familiar. (5Toast.)
6. "The familiar may be followed by the burlesque. (5Mellow.)
7. "And lastly may be produced the peculiar sense in which a word is found in any great author. (5Faculties.)"

Such is Johnson's distribution of the different senses in which words are used; and our curiosity is very naturally awakened to attend to the instances which he will adduce of such practical usage: exhibiting the same word in all the variety of significations. But this would have required some little accuracy of discrimination, and Johnson disdained the toil.

As the word "Arrive" is selected by Johnson himself, for a specimen of the manner in which he intended to proceed, as an interpreter of the primitive signification of words, and as you are already acquainted with the consistency of his illustration in his Plan, let us refer to this same word in the Dictionary: we shall find,

"To Arrive, v.n. (arriver, Fr. to come on shore.)

"1. To come to any place by water."

In the first place, he has not performed his promise, "to shew, when a word is borrowed from the French, whence the French is apparently derived."

In the second place, "To come on shore," and "To come to any place by water," are not one and the same thing, as many an unfortunate being has wretchedly experienced.

In the third place, take his example: and you will find that it is of one, who did not "come to any place by water;" but who actually did come to water by land.

At length, arriving on the banks of the Nile,
Wearied with length of days, and worn with toil,
She laid her down.............."           Dryden.

This poor wearied being was no other than Io, nitens juvenca, whom Juno

........ Profugam per totum terruit orbem.
Ultimus immenso restabas, Nile, labori.
Quem simul ac tetigit, positisque in margine ripæ
Procubuit genibus.

Is this one of "The blemishes not of that kind, quas incuria fudit, but the result of too much nicety and exactness." I can assure you, that such nicety and exactness pervade the whole work.

By the Plan, you recollect, seven divisions of meaning are the full portion allowed by Johnson; — from the Dictionary I could select you half a dozen starveling monosyllables, to which he has allotted four hundred and sixty-four explanations, that is, about seventy to each (upon the average) more than the Plan concedes to them as their due. An adherence to the Plan, then, would have diminished the bulk of the Dictionary in rather an unwelcome degree; — for these six little words occupy the space of forty folio columns.

By the Plan we perceive that the metaphorical sense was always carefully to be distinguished from the primitive; and of course we may infer, each was to be supported by distinct and proper examples. Not so in the Dictionary — There he tells us, that "A Mite is a small insect found in cheese or corn:" and for example we find, "Virginity breeds mites." Blanket, he also informs us, means "A woollen cover, soft and loosely woven, spread commonly upon a bed, over the linen sheet, for the procurement of warmth." And this is his first example:

Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, Hold, hold!

Again. — I must assure you, that such nicety and exactness pervade the whole Dictionary; — and you will find abundant proof that they do so in the Criticism.

"The Verbs (says the Plan) are likewise to be distinguished according to their qualities, as actives from neuters; the neglect of which has already introduced some barbarities in our conversation, which, if not obviated by just animadversions, may in time creep into our writings."

When you have sufficiently contemplated the solemn dogmatism with which this most momentous distinction is ordained, peruse this instance of the manner in which it is exemplified.

"To Ask, v.a. 1. To petition; to beg; sometimes with an accusative only, sometimes with for.

When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness."           Shakespeare.

"To Ask, v.n. 1. To petition; to beg, with for before the thing.

"My son, hast thou sinned? Do so no more, but ask pardon for thy former sins." Ecclus.

In the first place, I observe, that for is not expressed in the example I have transcribed to the verb active, nor in either of the other two, which you may find in the Dictionary, but may be supplied in all of them. In the second place, that, if in the expression "Ask forgiveness," the verb "Ask" is an active verb, common sense informs me, that in the expression "Ask pardon," it must be so likewise. And, in the third place, that in the example to the verb neuter, for is not before the thing, i. e. the thing asked.

I think you must now be sufficiently acquainted with Johnson's qualifications as a lexicographer, to hear without surprize that this neuter Ask does not appear in the first edition, but is an improvement introduced into some subsequent edition.



1. See Tooke's Trial for High Treason, Vol. I. p. 406.

2. "Perhaps the grammarians may already reproach me for the use of an improper tense." — Gibbon's Vindication.

3. On Mr. Tooke's principle of etymology, "that a word has but one meaning, however various its applications," I shall have occasion to enlarge hereafter.

4. Verborum explicatio probabatur, id est, qua de causa quæque essent ita nominata; quam etymologiam appellabant. Cic. Acad. Quæst. lib. i. c. 8.

5. The various words adduced as instances in the Plan.

This text is transcribed from the Google Books copy available at

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