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Adam Smith’s Review of Johnson’s Dictionary

The following Critical Essay was originally published in the Edinburgh Review, 1755; but as that performance is now very rarely to be met with, it is hoped a republication of some of the most interesting Articles will be acceptable to many of our readers.

Strictures on Dr. Johnson's Dictionary

The present undertaking is very extensive. A dictionary of the English language, however useful, or rather necessary, has never been hitherto attempted with the least degree of success. To explain hard words and terms of art seems to have been the chief purpose of all the former compositions which have borne the title of English dictionaries. Mr Johnson has extended his views much farther, and has made a very full collection of all the different meanings of each English word, justified by examples from authors of good reputation. When we compare this book with other dictionaries, the merit of its author appears very extraordinary. Those which in modern languages have gained the most esteem, are that of the French academy, and that of the academy Della Crusca. Both these were composed by a numerous society of learned men, and took up a longer time in the composition, than the life of a single person could well have afforded. The dictionary of the English language is the work of a single person, and composed in a period of time very inconsiderable when compared with the extent of the work. The collection of words appears to be very accurate, and must be allowed to be very ample. Most words, we believe, are to be found in the dictionary that ever were almost suspected to be English; but we cannot help wishing, that the author had trusted less to the judgement of those who may consult him, and had oftener passed his own censure upon those words which are not of approved use, though sometimes to be met with in authors of no mean name. Where a work is admitted to be highly useful, and the execution of it intitled to praise; the adding, that it might have been more useful, can scarcely, we hope, be deemed a censure of it. The merit of Mr Johnson's dictionary is so great, that it cannot detract from it to take notice of some defects, the supplying which, would, in our judgment, add a considerable share of merit to that which it already possesses. Those defects consist chiefly in the plan, which appears to us not to be sufficiently grammatical. The different significations of a word are indeed collected: but they are seldom digested into general classes, or ranged under the meaning which the word principally expresses; and sufficient care has not been taken to distinguish the words apparently synonymous. The only method of explaining what we intend, is by inserting an article or two from Mr Johnson, and by opposing to them the same articles, digested in the manner which we would have wished him to have followed.

BUT, conjunct. [bute, butan, Saxon.]

  1. Except.

    An emission of immateriate virtues we are a little doubtful to propound, it is so prodigious; but that it is so constantly avouched by many. Bacon.

    Who can it be, ye gods! but perjur'd Lycon?
    Who can inspire such storms of rage, but Lycon?
    Where has my sword left one so black, but Lycon?
    Smith's Phædra and Hippolitus.

    Your poem hath been printed, and we have no objection but the obscurity of several passages, by our ignorance in facts and persons. Swift.

  2. Yet; nevertheless. It sometimes only enforces yet.

    Then let him speak, and any that shall stand without, shall hear his voice plainly; but yet made extreme sharp and exile, like the voice of puppets: and yet the articulate sounds of the words will not be confounded. Bacon's Nat. Hist. No. 155.

    Our wants are many, and grievous to be borne, but quite of another kind. Swift.

  3. The particle which introduces the minor of a syllogism; now.

    If there be a liberty and possibility for a man to kill himself to-day, then it is not absolutely necessary that he shall live till to-morrow: but there is such a liberty; therefore no such necessity. Bramhall against Hobbes.

    God will one time or another make a difference between the good and the evil. But there is little or no difference made in this world: therefore there must be another world, wherein this difference shall be made. Watt's Logic, Introduct.

  4. Only; nothing more than.

    If my offence be of mortal kind,
    That not my service, past or present sorrows,
    Can ransom me into his love again;
    But to know so, must be my benefit.
    Shakesp. Othello.

    And but infirmity,
    Which waits upon worn times, hath something seiz'd
    His wish'd ability, he had himself
    The lands and waters measur'd.
    Shak. Winter's Tale.

    What nymph soe'er his voice but hears,
    Will be my rival, tho' she have but ears.
    Ben Johnson.

    No, Aurengzebe, you merit all my heart,
    And I'm too noble but to give a part.

    Did but men consider the true notion of God, he would appear to be full of goodness. Tillotson.

    If we do but put virtue and vice in equal circumstances, the advantages of ease and pleasure will be found to be on the side of religion. Tillotson.

    The mischiefs or harms that come by play, inadvertency, or ignorance, are not at all, or but very gently, to be taken notice of. Locke on Education.

    If a reader examines Horace's art of poetry, he will find but very few precepts in it, which he may not meet with in Aristotle. Addison, Spectator.

    Prepar'd I stand: he was but born to try
    The lot of man, to suffer and to die.
    Pope's Odyssey.

  5. Than.

    The full moon was no sooner up, and straining in all its brightness, but he privately opened the gate of paradise. Guardian, No. 167.

  6. But that; without this consequence that.

    Frosts that constrain the ground,
    Do seldom their usurping power withdraw,
    But raging floods pursue their hasty hand.

  7. Otherwise than that.

    It cannot be but nature hath some director, of infinite power, to guide her in all her ways. Hooker, b. i. § 3.

    Who shall believe,
    But you misuse the reverence of your place?

  8. Not otherwise than.

    A genius so elevated and unconfined as Mr Cowley's, was but necessary to make Pindar speak English. Dryden.

  9. By any other means than.

    Out of that will I cause those of Cyprus to mutiny: whose qualification shall come into no true taste again, but by transplanting of Cassio. Shakesp. Othello.

  10. If it were not for this; if this were not.

    Believe me, I had rather have lost my purse
    Full of cruzades. And but my noble Moor
    Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness,
    As jealous creatures are, it were enough
    to put him to ill-thinking.
    Shakesp. Othello.

    I here do give thee that with all my heart,
    Which, but thou hast already, with all my heart
    I would keep from thee.
    Shakesp. Othello.

  11. However; howbeit.

    I do not doubt but I have been to blame:
    But to pursue the end for which I came,
    Unite your subjects first; then let us go,
    And pour their common rage upon the foe.

  12. It is used after no doubt, no question, and such words, and signifies the same with that. It sometimes is joined with that.

    They made no account, but that the navy should be absolutely master of the seas. Bacon's War with Spain.

    I fancied to myself a kind of ease in the change of the paroxysm; never suspecting but that the humour would have wasted itself. Dryden.

    There is no question but the king of Spain will reform most of the abuses. Addison on Italy.

  13. That. This seems no proper sense in this place.

    It is not therefore impossible, but I may alter the complexion of my play, to restore myself into the good graces of my fair critics. Dryden's Aurengzebe, Preface.

  14. Otherwise than.

    I should sin
    To think but nobly of my grandmother.
    Shakesp. Tempest.

  15. Even; not longer ago than.

    Beroe but now I left; whom, pin'd with pain,
    Her age and anguish from these rites detain.

    It is evident, in the instance I gave but now, the consciousness went along. Locke.

  16. A particle by which the meaning of the foregoing sentence is bounded or restrained.

    Thus fights Ulysses, thus his fame extends,
    A formidable man, but to his friends.

  17. An objective particle: yet it may be objected.

    But yet, madam ——
    I do not like but yet; it does allay
    The good precedence; fie upon but yet!
    But yet is as a jailor, to bring forth
    Some monstrous malefactor.
    Shak. Antony and Cleop.

    Must the heart then have been formed and constituted, before the blood was in being? But here again, the substance of the heart itself is most certainly made and nourished by the blood, which is conveyed to it by the coronary arteries. Bentl.

  18. But for; without; had not this been.

    Rash man! forbear; but for some unbelief,
    My joy had been as fatal as my grief.

    Her head was bare,
    But for her native ornament of hair,
    Which in a simple knot was ty'd above.
    Dryden's Fables.

    When the fair boy receiv'd the gift of right,
    And, but for mischief, you had dy'd for spight.

BUT, an English particle which denotes opposition, and which, according to the different modifications of the general sense of opposition, sometimes holds the place of an adverb, sometimes of a preposition, sometimes of a conjunction, and sometimes even of an interjection. It serves as a conjunction of four different species, as an adversative, as an alternative, as a conductive, and as a transitive conjunction. In its original and most proper meaning, however, it seems to be an adversative conjunction, in the sense in which is is synonymous with however; and in which it is expressed in Latin by sed, in French by mais. I should have done this, but was prevented: I should have done this; I was however prevented. The difference betwixt these two particles seems to consist chiefly in this, That but must always stand at the beginning of the sentence whose opposition it marks to what went before; whereas however is introduced more gracefully after the beginning of the opposed sentence: and that the construction may often be continued, when we make use of but; whereas, it must always be interrupted when when1 we make use of however.

The use of but, upon this account, seems often to mark a more precipitate keenness in denoting the opposition, than the use of however. If, in talking of a quarrel, a person should say, I should have made some apology for my conduct, but was prevented by his insolence; he would seem to express more passion and keenness than if he had said, I should have made some apology for my conduct, I was however prevented by his insolence.

2. But is likewise an alternative conjunction in the sense in which it is nearly synonymous with the English unless, and except, with the Latin nisi, and with the French sinon.

The people are not to be satisfied, but by remitting them some of their taxes.

Unless by remitting them, &c.

Except by remitting them, &c.

The first expression seems to mark more peculiarly the insufficiency of every other means to pacify the people, but that which is proposed. The second seems to mark more peculiarly that either this means must be employed, or the public disturbances will go on, and is therefore more alternative than the first. The third expression seems to mark the sense of one who out of all the means that can be proposed, chooses that which is most effectual. When we make use of unless, we do not mark that we have considered of any other means besides that which is proposed. Whereas, when we make use of but or except, we show that we have considered of some other means. But marks a negative rejection of every other means, but those proposed. Except a positive choice of the means proposed. Unless marks neither the one nor the other; and merely denotes an alternative, that either this must be done, or that will follow.

3. But is likewise a conductive conjunction in the sense in which it is nearly synonymous with the Latin quin, with the French que, and with the English than or that, when the first is preceded and the other followed by the particles of negation no or not.

The full moon was no sooner up, than he privately opened the gate of paradise.

But he privately opened, &c.

It cannot be doubted, that the king of Spain will not reform most of the abuses.

But the king of Spain will reform, &c.

Who shall believe, but you misuse the reverence of your place.

That you do not misuse, &c.

It cannot be but nature hath some director, &c.

It cannot be that nature hath not some director.

4. But is likewise a transitive conjunction in the sense in which it is synonymous with the Latin sed, and with the French or.

All animals are mortal, but all men are animals, &c.

5. But is likewise an adverb of quantity, and signifies no more than, and is nearly synonymous with the Latin tantum, and with the English only.

I saw no more than three plants.

I saw but three plants.

I saw three plants only.

A genius so elevated and unconfined as Mr Cowley's was no more than necessary to make Pindar speak English.

Was but necessary, &c.

Was only necessary, &c.

This last expression might here perhaps be thought improper, because it might give occasion to an ambiguity; and might either signify, that nothing less than such a genius was capable of making Pindar speak English, or that nothing more was requisite for this purpose. Saving this ambiguity, the expression is in every other respect perfectly proper.

I should sin to think but nobly of my grandmother.

No more than nobly, &c.

Only nobly, &c.

Ulysses was formidable, but to his friends.

To his friends only.

Did but men consider the true notion of God.

Did men only consider, &c.

Beroe but now I left.

Beroe I left now only.

6. But is also a preposition; in which use it is synonymous with except, and would be expressed in Latin by præter, in French by hors.

They are all dead but three.

They are all dead except three.

Who can it be, ye gods! but perjur'd Lycon?

Except perjur'd Lycon, &c.

7. But is also used as an interjection, though not frequently; as in this phrase,

Good God, but she is handsome!
HUMOUR. n.s. [humeur, French; humor, Latin.]

  1. Moisture.

    The aqueous humour of the eye will not freeze; which is very admirable, seeing it hath the perspicuity and fluidity of common water. Ray on the Creation.

  2. The different kind of moisture in man's body, reckoned by the old physicians to be phlegm, blood, choler, and melancholy, which, as they predominated, were supposed to determine the temper of mind.

    Believe not these suggestions, which proceed
    From anguish of the mind and humours black,
    That mingle with thy fancy.
    Milton's Agonistes.

  3. General turn or temper of mind.

    As there is no humour to which impudent poverty cannot make itself serviceable; so were there enow of those desperate ambition, who would build their houses upon others ruin. Sidney, b. ii.

    There came with her a young lord, led hither with the humour of youth, which ever thinks that good whose goodness he sees not. Sidney.

    King James, as he was a prince of great judgment, so he was a prince of a marvellous pleasant humour: as he was going through Lusen by Greenwich, he asked what town it was; they said Lusen. He asked, a good while after, what town is this we are now in? They said sill it was Lusen: said the king, I will be king of Lusen. Bacon's Apophthegms.

    Examine how your humour is inclin'd,
    And which the ruling passion of your mind.

    They, who were acquainted with him, knew his humour to be such, that he would never constrain himself. Dryden.

    In cases where it is necessary to make examples, it is the humour of the multitude to forget the crime, and to remember the punishment. Addison's Freeholder.

    Good humour only teaches charms to last,
    Still makes new conquests, and maintains the past.

  4. Present disposition.

    It is the curse of kings to be attended
    By slaves, that take their humours for a warrant
    To break into the blood-house of life.
    Shak. K. John.

    Another thought her nobles humour fed. Fairfax, b. ii.

    Their humours are not to be won,
    But when they are impos'd upon.
    Hudibras, p. 3.

    Tempt not his heavy hand;
    But one submissive word which you let fall,
    Will make him in good humour with us all.

  5. Grotesque imagery; jocularity; merriment.

  6. Diseased or morbid disposition.

    He was a man frank and generous; when well, denied himself nothing that he had a mind to eat or drink, which gave him a body full of humours, and made his fits of the gout frequent and violent. Temple.

  7. Petulance; peevishness.

    Is my friend all perfection, all virtue and discetion? Has he not humours to be endured, as well as kindness to be enjoyed? South's Sermons.

  8. A trick; a practice.

    I like not the humour of lying: he hath wronged me in some humours: I should have borne the humour'd letter to her. Shak. Merry Wives of Windsor.

  9. Caprice; whim; predominant inclination.

    In private, men are more bold in their own humours; and in concert, men are more obnoxious to other humours; therefore it is good to take both. Bacon's Essays.

HUMOUR, from the Latin humor, in its original signification, stands for moisture in general; from whence it has been restrained to signify the moisture of animal bodies, or those fluids which circulate through them.

It is distinguished from moisture in general in this, that humours properly express the fluids of the body, when, in a vitiated state, it would not be improper to say, that the fluids of such a person's body were full of humours.

The only fluids of the body, which, in their natural and healthful state, are called humours, are those in the eye; we talk of the aqueous humour, the crystalline humour, without meaning any thing that is morbid or diseased: yet, when we say in general, that such a person has got a humour in his eye, we understand it in the usual sense of a vitiated fluid.

As the temper of the mind is supposed to depend upon the state of the fluids in the body, humour has come to be synonymous with temper and disposition.

A person's humour, however, is different from his disposition in this, that humour seems to be the disease of a disposition; it would be proper to say that persons of a serious temper or disposition of mind, were subject to melancholy humours; that those of a delicate and tender disposition, were subject to peevish humours.

Humour may be agreeable, or disagreeable; but it is still humour, something that is whimsical, capricious, and not to be depended upon: an ill-natur'd man may have fits of good-humour, which seem to come upon him accidentally, without any regard to the common moral causes of happiness or misery.

A fit of cheerfulness constitutes the whole of good humour; and a man who has many such fits, is a good humour'd man: yet he may not be good-natur'd; which is a character that supposes something more constant, equable, and uniform, than what was requisite to constitute good humour.

Humour is often made use of to express the quality of the imagination, which bears a considerable resemblance to wit.

Wit expresses something that is more designed, concerted, regular, and artificial; humour, something that is more wild, loose, extravagant, and fantastical; something which comes upon a man by fits, which he can neither command nor restrain, and which is not perfectly consistent with true politeness. Humour, it has been said, is often more diverting than wit; yet a man of wit is as much above a man of humour, as a gentleman is above a buffoon; a buffoon, however, will often divert more than a gentleman.

These instances may serve to explain the plan of a Dictionary which suggested itself to us. It can import no reflection upon Mr Johnson's Dictionary, that the subject has been viewed in a different light by others; and it is at least a matter of curiosity to consider the different views in which it appears. Any man who was about to compose a dictionary, or rather a grammar, of the English language, must acknowledge himself indebted to Mr Johnson for abridging at least one-half of his labour. All those who are under any difficulty with respect to a particular word or phrase, are in the same situation. The dictionary presents them a full collection of examples; from whence indeed they are left to determine, but by which the determination is rendered easy. In this country, the usefulness of it will be soon felt, as there is no standard of correct language in conversation; if our recommendation could in any degree incite to the perusal of it, we would earnestly recommend it to all those who are desirous to improve and correct their language, frequently to consult the dictionary. Its merit must be determined by the frequent resort that is had to it. This is the most unerring test of its value: criticisms may be false, private judgments ill-founded; but if a work of this nature be much in use, it has received the sanction of the public approbation.

1. The repeated "when" is a printing error. - Brandi

from The Edinburgh Magazine or Literary Miscellany. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: Printed for J. Sibbald, Parliament-Square. 1785. pg. 39 - 45.

Though not stated in the above source, the author of this review is Adam Smith.

This text is transcribed from the Google Books copy available at

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