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Johnson’s Dictionary in Literature

The Associated Shades Novels, by John Kendrick Bangs (1895 - 1901)

NOTE: Dr. Johnson is a major character in the first two of these novels, where he is part of a group of historical and fictional characters spending the afterlife on a houseboat.

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," said Nero, grinning broadly.

"You are a bright spirit," said Shakespeare, with a sigh. "I wish I had thought to work you up into a tragedy."

"I've often wondered why you didn't," said Doctor Johnson. "He'd have made a superb tragedy, Nero would. I don't believe there was any kind of a crime he left uncommitted. Was there, Emperor?"

"Yes. I never wrote an English dictionary," returned the Emperor, dryly. "I've murdered everything but English, though."


“They used to,” said Adam. “I once had a whole aviary full of winged elephants. They flew from flower to flower, and thrusting their probabilities deep into—”

“Their what?” queried Johnson, with a frown.

“Probabilities—isn’t that the word? Their trunks,” said Adam.

“Probosces, I imagine you mean,” suggested Johnson.

“Yes—that was it. Their probosces,” said Adam. “They were great honey-gatherers, those elephants—far better than the bees, because they could make so much more of it in a given time.”

- The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of John Kendrick Bangs: Vol. 2 by John Kendrick Bangs (1895 - 1901)

The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce (1911)

ABRUPT, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannon- shot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it. Dr. Samuel Johnson beautifully said of another author's ideas that they were "concatenated without abruption."

BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the grave and four parts clarified Satan. Dose, a headful all the time. Brandy is said by Dr. Johnson to be the drink of heroes. Only a hero will venture to drink it.

CLOSE-FISTED, adj. Unduly desirous of keeping that which many meritorious persons wish to obtain.

"Close-fisted Scotchman!" Johnson cried
        To thrifty J. Macpherson;
"See me—I'm ready to divide
        With any worthy person."
Sad Jamie: "That is very true—
       The boast requires no backing;
And all are worthy, sir, to you,
        Who have what you are lacking."
Anita M. Bobe

PATRIOTISM, n. Combustible rubbish read to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.

In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

- The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1911)

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville (1851)

Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels. Having already described him in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view. Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan- to an ant or a flea- such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered. Fain am I to stagger to this enterprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer's uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me.

- Moby Dick by Herman Melville, chapter 104 (1851)

"Sunflowers and a Rushlight" by Juliana Ewing (1882)

...Grandmamma told Dr. Brown how silly I was, to make me feel ashamed, that he said — "There are some tempers which, if they haven't enough people to love, will love things."

Margery says he did not say tempers but temperaments. I know it began with temper, because it reminded me of Jael, who said "them tears is all temper, Miss Grace," which was very hard, because she knew - she knew quite well - it was about my poodle; and although accidents will happen, she need not have swept up his tail.

Margery is sure to be right. She always is. Besides, we looked it out in Johnson's Dictionary which we are rather fond of, though it is very heavy to lift. We like the bits out of books, in small print; but I could not understand the bits to the word temperament, and I do not think Margery could either, though she can understand much more than I can.

There is a very odd bit to the word temperamental, and it is signed Brown; but we do not know if that means our Dr. Brown. This is the bit: "That temperamental dignotions, and conjecture of prevalent humours, may be collected from spots in our nails, we concede." — Brown.

We could not understand it, so we lifted down the other volume (one is just as heavy as the other), and looked out "Dignotion," and it means "distinction, distinguishing mark," and then there is the same bit over again, but at the end, is "Brown's Vulgar Errors." And we did not like to ask Dr. Brown if they were his vulgar errors, for fear he should think us rude.


Margery says she did not understand at the time what they were quarrelling about; and when, afterwards, she asked Grandmamma what a cesspool was, Grandmamma was cross with her too, and said it was a very coarse and vulgar word, and that Dr. Brown was a very coarse and vulgar person. We've looked it out since in Johnson's Dictoinary, for we thought it might be one of Dr. Brown's vulgar errors, but it is not there.

- Last Words: a final collection of stories by Juliana Horatia Ewig, "Sunflowers and a Rushlight." (1851)

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

In Miss Jemima's eyes an autograph letter of her sister, Miss Pinkerton, was an object of as deep veneration as would have been a letter from a sovereign. Only when her pupils quitted the establishment, or when they were about to be married, and once, when poor Miss Birth died of the scarlet fever, was Miss Pinkerton known to write personally to the parents of her pupils; and it was Jemima's opinion that if anything could console Mrs. Birch for her daughter's loss, it would be that pious and eloquent composition in which Miss Pinkerton announced the event.

In the present instance Miss Pinkerton's "billet" was to the following effect:

""The Mall, Chiswick,. June 15, 18--.

"Madam: After her six years' residence at the Mall, I have the honor and happiness of presenting Miss Amelia Sedley to her parents, as a young lady not unworthy to occupy a fitting position in their polished and refined circle. Those virtues which characterize the young English gentlewoman, those accomplishments which become her birth and station, will not be found wanting in the amiable Miss Sedley, whose industry and obedience have endeared her to her instructors, and whose delightful sweetness of temper has charmed her aged and her youthful companions.

"In music, in dancing, in orthography, in every variety of embroidery and needle-work, she will be found to have realized her friends' fondest wishes. In geography there is still much to be desired; and a careful and undeviating use of the backboard, for four hours daily during the next three years, is recommended as necessary to the acquirement of that dignified deportment and carriage so requisite for every young lady of fashion.

"In the principles of religion and morality, Miss Sedley will be found worthy of an establishment which has been honored by the presence of The Great Lexicographer, and the patronage of the admirable Mrs. Chapone. In leaving the Mall, Miss Amelia carries with her the hearts of her companions, and the affectionate regards of her mistress, who has the honor to subscribe herself,

"Your most obliged humble servant,
"Barbara Pinkerton.

"P.S. — Miss Sharp accompanies Miss Sedley. It is particularly requested that Miss Sharp's stay in Russell Square may not exceed ten days. The family of distinction with whom she is engaged desire to avail themselves of her services as soon as possible."

This letter completed, Miss Pinkerton proceeded to write her own name and Miss Sedley's in the fly-leaf of a Johnson's Dictionary - the interesting work which she invariably presented to her scholars, on their departure from the Mall. On the cover was inserted a copy of "Lines addressed to a young lady on quitting Miss Pinkerton's school at the Mall; by the late revered Doctor Samuel Johnson." In fact, the lexicographer's name was always on the lips of this majestic woman, and a visit he had paid to her was the cause of her reputation and her fortune.

Being commanded by her elder sister to get "the Dictionary" from the cupboard, Miss Jemima had extracted two copies of the book from the receptacle in question. When Miss Pinkerton had finished the inscription in the first, Jemima, with rather a dubious and timid air, handed her the second.

"For whom is this, Miss Jemima?" said Miss Pinkerton with awful coldness.

"For Becky Sharp," answered Jemima, trembling very much, and blushing over her withered face and neck, as she turned her back on her sister. "For Becky Sharp; she's going, too."

"MISS JEMIMA!" exclaimed Miss Pinkerton, in the largest capitals. "Are you in your senses? Replace the Dixonary in the closet, and never venture to take such a liberty in future."

"Well, sister, it's only two-and-ninepence, and poor Becky will be miserable if she don't get one."

"Send Miss Sedley instantly to me," said Miss Pinkerton. And so venturing not to say another word, poor Jemima trotted off, exceedingly flurried and nervous.

Miss Sedley's papa was a merchant in London, and a man of some wealth; whereas Miss Sharp was an articled pupil, for whom Miss Pinkerton had done, as she thought, quite enough, without conferring upon her at parting the high honor of the Dixonary.


"It's some sandwiches, my dear," said she to Amelia." You may be hungry, you know; and Becky, Becky Sharp, here's a book for you that my sister — that is, I — Johnson's Dixonary, you know; you mustn't leave us without that. Good-by. Drive on, coachman. God bless you!"

And the kind creature retreated into the garden, overcome with emotion.

But, lo! and just as the coach drove off, Miss Sharp put her pale face out of the window and actually flung the book back into the garden.

This almost caused Jemima to faint with terror. "Well, I never," said she. "What an audacious—" Emotion prevented her from completing either sentence.

- Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, chapter 1 (1848)

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Cite this page: "Johnson’s Dictionary in Literature." A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson. Edited by Brandi Besalke. Last modified: October 30, 2013. https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/johnsons-dictionary-in-literature/.

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