Much of what we think we know about Johnson’s Dictionary is wrong. It’s famous as “the first dictionary,” but there had been dozens of English dictionaries before Johnson’s. Some of the witty and satirical definitions and obscure words have become so famous that some people think the whole book is a collection of witticisms, like Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, but those entries make up only a tiny fraction of the book. In fact it’s a serious scholarly survey of the entire English vocabulary. Not only was it not the first English dictionary, but Johnson made very few innovations in lexicography—very little about it is truly new. To understand what makes it important, we need to put it in the context of earlier English dictionaries.
The first English dictionaries were bilingual—Latin–English, for instance—or specialized, covering the legal vocabulary, say, or terms related to gardening. General-purpose monolingual English dictionaries arrived on the scene late. The first one, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall: Conteyning and Teaching the True Writing, and Understanding of Hard Usuall English Wordes, appeared in 1604, a small book of 130 unnumbered pages and around 2,500 entries. It focuses especially on uncommon words from Latin and Greek: it contains pacifie, pactation, palatine, and palinodie, but skips over more familiar words like pace, pack, pad, paddle, page, pain, and paint. Cawdrey’s definitions are brief, sometimes just a single word, and not always very accurate:
Johnson’s Dictionary includes roughly 42,000 entries—“roughly” in part because it’s not always clear whether we should count something as one long entry or several short ones. (One count gives the satisfyingly but misleadingly precise 41,684 entries.) This is less than Bailey’s 48,000, but Johnson did a better job covering the common vocabulary. Bailey gave space to entries that were more encyclopedic than lexicographical: Druid gets a mini-essay of several hundred words, the legendary Cretan king Minos and the Minotaur take up half a column, and there are long discussions of ancient Roman customs and the difference between Nazarenes and Nazarites. Johnson omitted most of this encyclopedic material. Bailey also included many words that have never been spotted “in the wild,” that is, used by real English-speakers: many of them were little more than Greek or Latin words with English suffixes tacked onto them. Johnson included only a few words like these, always hesitantly, and indicated clearly whenever he had no evidence for a word beside other dictionaries.
Johnson tried to cover as much of the actual English vocabulary as he could, while not neglecting those who needed help with the obscure words that appeared in literature. He admitted that he was unable to cover the spoken language, especially the words that were limited to small communities: “I could not visit caverns to learn the miner’s language, nor take a voyage to perfect my skill in the dialect of navigation.” He also had little interest in dialect or regional variation. What we call slang—the word wasn’t yet coined when Johnson wrote; he would say something like “a low word”—held little interest. He cared about the language shared by the great writers in English, which, he believed, was the best model for the entire community of English speakers. His coverage of this standard written language was unrivaled.
In one area Johnson was impressive by the standards of his day, though developments soon left him behind. Johnson included etymologies, or word histories, for virtually all his entries. His extensive knowledge of Latin and Greek, combined with some familiarity with the Germanic languages, Gaelic, and Hebrew, made him fabulously impressive, but he worked on his etymologies without any coherent understanding of how languages develop over time. For him, as for other etymologists of his day, superficial similarities between words in different languages were enough to suggest shared origins. Only in the decades after his death did philologists begin to understand the laws by which sounds develop into different sounds over the course of centuries.
Johnson likewise did a merely adequate job of treating pronunciation. He consistently marked syllables that receive primary stress, something that can be difficult to guess in English: AUTOMA′TICAL, AUTO′MATON, AUTO′MATOUS, AUTO′NOMY, A′UTOPSY. Beyond that he did little to explain pronunciation. With only a few words does he provide information that would help non-native speakers: island “is pronounced iland,” and chirurgeon “is now generally pronounced, and by many written, surgeon.” He explains “the verb read is pronounced reed; the preterite and participle red.” In stingy, “the g is pronounced as in gem.” Sometimes there is historical information: antique “was formerly pronounced according to the English analogy, with the accent on the first syllable; but now after the French, with the accent on the last.” But notes like these are rare, just a few hundred in a book of more than forty thousand entries. And attempts to capture all the English phonemes, the significant speech sounds, in writing were still in their infancy. Useful information on pronunciation would have to wait for later lexicographers.
But in one area he deserves special credit. In the preface to the Dictionary he worries that his definitions will be criticized:
Earlier lexicographers gave little thought to what definitions should look like. One-word definitions, little more than synonyms, were common, and some lexicographers couldn’t even manage synonyms. As late as 1702, nearly a century after Cawdrey, John Kersey’s New English Dictionary included definitions that are hardly definitions at all, things like “Ake, as, my head akes,” or “An Apron, for a Woman.” But matters were improving. Bailey’s definitions were more precise than Cawdrey’s or Kersey’s: forfeit, “to be liable to a penalty, for a transgression of the law, or to lose by some default or omission”; stomach, “a hollow, membranous organ, destined to receive the food, to digest and convert it into chyle; also the appetite to meat; also choler or passion, a testy and refractory humour.”
Johnson took defining to new heights. Linguists use the term polysemous to describe words with many meanings. These words tend to be the oldest and most basic words in the language, and they’re notoriously slippery. Consider give: the first definition that comes to mind is something like “present” or “hand over,” as in to give a present. But a few minutes’ reflection reveals a long list of meanings not covered by that definition: give me a minute, give it a chance, he gave up the ghost, the dam might give way, give me liberty, he gave his daughter away in marriage, I’ll give you twenty-four hours to finish, I give you my word, she gives as good as she gets, the soldiers gave their lives, they gave him a beating, he gave her a funny look, when you’re ready give me a call, the lieutenant gave an order, the witness gave testimony, she gives a big dinner every year, I don’t want to give you the flu, give the hostess your name, this gives us hope, don’t give yourself airs, the railing gave when he sat on it, what gives?, the enemy gave ground, she gave away half her income, his accent almost gave him away, it’s important to give back to the community, after ten days our supplies gave out, they gave him up for dead . . . . These polysemous words are the single biggest challenge facing working lexicographers. Johnson’s handling of these challenges earned him the reputation as the first English master of polysemy.
The earliest English dictionaries ignored most polysemous words: they covered only the obscure words, and those tend to have single meanings. Over time, though, more and more common words made their way into dictionaries. How to handle them? Lexicographers can be divided into “lumpers,” who try to write broad definitions to cover as many meanings as possible, and “splitters,” who provide separate definitions for each subtle shade of meaning. Lexicographers before Johnson tended to be lumpers, hoping a broad definition would cover many senses and ignoring the rest, or they wrote sloppy definitions that were unclear about how the various senses were used. Bailey, for instance, though better than most of his predecessors, defines harmony as “Melody; a musical Consort; a due Proportion; an Agreement or pleasing Union between several Sounds continuing at the same Time; either of Voices or musical Instruments.” Is this one big definition?—five shorter ones?—what kind of consort does he mean?
Johnson, on the other hand, is the ancestor of all subsequent splitters in English lexicography, and sought clarity about exactly where one meaning ends and the next begins. He carefully sifted through different senses of each word and provided a series of discrete meanings: for him, harmony is
Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum, for instance, defines the verb get as “to obtain, to acquire, to find out”—end of definition. Benjamin Martin’s Lingua Britannica Reformata (1749), which took the idea of numbered senses from Johnson’s Plan even though his book appeared before Johnson’s, identifies seven senses for get:
Johnson’s other great innovation is his use of quotations, which make his Dictionary by far the longest English dictionary published to that point—longer, in fact, than the first seven English dictionaries put together. Quotations were part of Greek and Latin lexicography, but no one in English had tried anything similar. For Johnson the quotations were the most important part: words get their meanings from use, so the best way to show their meanings is to show them in use. He suspected critics would accuse him of padding out his book with more quotations than necessary: “authorities will sometimes seem to have been accumulated without necessity or use,” he said, “and perhaps some will be found, which might, without loss, have been omitted.” But he defended his decision to include so many passages from English literature:
Johnson was more frank than any lexicographer before him that his book was imperfect. Writers of dictionaries, he said, should expect to “be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.” But he ends his preface with a stirring defense of his achievements, tempered by some melancholy reflections on the losses he suffered while writing it:
It is an immutable law of the publishing world: all reference books end up taking longer than expected, sometimes much longer. Dictionaries planned for five years can take decades. Encyclopedias that are supposed to be finished in ten years can last more than a century, with multiple generations of editors coming and going.
When Johnson signed the bookseller’s contract he agreed to deliver his Dictionary within three years. It was an impossible promise: the nearest equivalents, the great academy dictionaries of Italy and France, appeared only after decades of work by teams of dozens of lexicographers. Johnson was working almost entirely alone, with only a few assistants to copy passages onto slips of paper. He got into quarrels with his publishers, and at least once threatened to withhold his labor if they wouldn’t agree to his terms. More than once he discovered that his procedures weren’t working, and had to toss out his work and start over again. It is no surprise that he missed his three-year deadline. In fact it is almost miraculous that he completed the work in nine years, from the signing of the contract in 1746 to publication in 1755.
When Johnson began the Dictionary he was almost entirely unknown in the literary world. But over those years of work he began to make a name for himself, especially with his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) and his essay series The Rambler (1750–52). Though Johnson never completed his bachelor’s degree, his literary work earned him an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford. It arrived just in time for the printers to put “By Samuel Johnson, A.M.” on the book’s title page.
The publishers saw this as a major work, and opted to publish “in folio,” the format traditionally reserved for the most dignified books, things like pulpit bibles. A folio is the largest format for printed books; one large sheet is folded just once to produce four pages. Johnson’s Dictionary is big, 2,300 pages, each 17½″ × 10¾″ (44.5 × 27.3 cm), with the text neatly printed in two columns. It was officially published on 15 April 1755. Two thousand copies were printed, and the book was advertised at £4 10s. (that is, four and a half pounds sterling).
How much is that? It is notoriously difficult to find modern equivalents for older monetary amounts, and the further we go back in time the less reliable modern equivalents become. Different means of calculating produce a wide range of answers, but £1,000 ($1,400) might be a fair modern estimate. For agricultural workers or day laborers, who earned only around £20 or £30 a year in 1755, £4½ represented several months’ wages. Few families could afford a book at this price.
After a few months of disappointing sales the booksellers tried offering the Dictionary in “parts”—twelve or sixteen pages for sixpence each week, spread out over 165 weeks—but sales continued weak and, while they started printing 2,300 copies of each part, so many were going unsold that by the halfway point they were printing fewer than 800 copies.
Though it was not part of the original plan, Johnson agreed with his publishers to produce an abridged version. No longer in folio, this edition appeared in January 1756 in two much smaller octavo volumes, and sold for just 10s., a discount of nearly 90 percent from the unabridged version. The etymologies and definitions were largely unchanged—only a handful of entries were revised—but nearly all the quotations were removed. Sometimes a writer’s name remained to “authorize” a word’s usage. The verb raise, for instance, gets 21 numbered senses in the folio Dictionary, accompanied by 35 quotations. The “abstracted” octavo edition has the same 21 definitions, but the quotations have disappeared, replaced by only a handful of names:
In 1758 Johnson received a sign that his book was a success: the first of the pirated editions appeared. The text of the abridged version of 1756 was issued by unscrupulous booksellers in Dublin. Neither Johnson nor the original group of booksellers who commissioned the Dictionary contributed anything to the edition, and they received no payment for it. The principle of intellectual property was still in its infancy, and in any case Irish booksellers were not subject to English copyright law. These pirated editions, which tried to undercut the price of the legitimate editions and steal their market share, would become more and more common.
More editions appeared over the years: some of the folio and some of the octavo, some authorized and some pirated. Eventually the words “Johnson’s Dictionary” appeared on books that weren’t Johnson’s at all. As bibliographer Robin Alston observes, “These dictionaries, though having Johnson’s name on the title page, really have nothing whatever to do with” Johnson’s Dictionary. Publishers might call any cheap dictionary “Johnson’s” to cash in on his prestige, just as the name “Webster’s” appeared on so many nineteenth-century dictionaries that the Merriam Company lost the trademark on the name. Johnson himself was involved in only one of these later ventures. In 1772, seventeen years after the folio first appeared, he decided to revise his work. He spent most of a year going through the Dictionary entry by entry, clarifying definitions that struck him as insufficiently precise, adding new words and new senses when they seemed warranted, and adding and deleting quotations.
When he completed the task he marked the occasion in a poem—in Latin, which he often reserved for his most personal writing, and bearing the imposing Greek title “ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΤΟΝ” (“Know Thyself”). It’s a melancholy reflection on the years he’s devoted to the work, the fatigue he suffered, the worries about what came next, and an increasing awareness of his mortality. The closing lines, in English translation:
Johnson died in December 1784, but the Dictionary lived on after he was gone. Less than two weeks after he died the fifth folio edition was published. In the 1780s and ’90s vast numbers of small books with fraudulent titles like “Johnson’s Dictionary in Miniature” appeared. But in 1818 Henry John Todd, a scholar and clergyman, published A Dictionary of the English Language . . . by Samuel Johnson, LL.D. . . . with Numerous Corrections, and with the Addition of Several Thousand Words, as Also with Additions to the History of the Language, and to the Grammar, by the Rev. H. J. Todd. This four-volume dictionary, sometimes called “Todd’s Johnson’s Dictionary,” is more than 4,300 pages, and was the basis for many nineteenth-century editions. Subsequent publishers did even more with it: Johnson’s information on pronunciation is skimpy by modern standards, but nineteenth-century publishers lifted the pronunciations from John Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary and mixed them with Todd’s revision of Johnson’s definitions.
Johnson had posthumous rivals. The Englishman Charles Richardson published his own eccentric dictionary that attacked Johnson’s mercilessly, but it never caught on. Across the Atlantic, though, Johnson had more serious competition. Noah Webster, a proud American, had a complicated relationship with his predecessor. He despised Johnson for his support of Great Britain during the American War of Independence and complained his Dictionary was “extremely imperfect and full of error.” But, despite the complaints, the two dictionaries share many strengths. Johnson’s definitions are very good; Webster’s are superb. Johnson was an early “splitter,” seeking out subtle shades of meaning for each word; Webster, though he fell for a while under the spell of the cranky John Horne Tooke and the theory that every word had exactly one meaning, became an impressive splitter in his own right, distinguishing forty-seven senses of the verb to get. They also share weaknesses. Johnson’s etymologies, constructed on no theoretical basis, are adequate at best; Webster’s, constructed on a fundamentally flawed theoretical basis, are downright bad. And Webster often cribbed from the figure he liked to disparage. By one scholar’s count, Webster lifted about 7 percent of his definitions from Johnson unaltered, acknowledging his source less than one time in twenty. Another 22 percent of Webster’s definitions are borrowed from Johnson with the alteration of a word or two. Altogether about one in three of Webster’s definitions owe a debt to his predecessor—and around two in three of his illustrative quotations.
A hundred years after its publication, Johnson’s Dictionary was still the most important work of its kind in Britain, and only Webster in America was serious competition. But it was showing its age. As philologists learned more about the way languages develop—Germany was on the leading edge here, and the Brothers Grimm, famous today for their collection of folktales, made breakthroughs that were reflected in their own German dictionary—English scholars realized they had fallen behind. They needed a serious dictionary constructed on modern principles. One suggestion was for the Philological Society of London to bring Johnson into the nineteenth century in a thorough revision, creating the kind of historical dictionary they saw as necessary. After much deliberation, though, they realized a wholly new dictionary was called for. They developed a plan of work, hired a series of editors, and activated a global network of thousands of volunteers who read widely in English literature and sent citations on slips of paper. They called the work A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the title that appears on the early editions. It was published in parts starting with A–ant in 1884, and when the work was completed in 1928, they reissued the whole thing at once, now bearing the name of the publisher that stepped in when a previous publisher withdrew from the project: it was The Oxford English Dictionary. More than 170 years after its publication, Johnson’s Dictionary had at last been surpassed.