Newcomers to Johnson’s Dictionary are often surprised when they open it. Only a small fraction of the words on any page are Johnson’s: the bulk of it is quotations from others, around 115,000 of them. These quotations are the heart of Johnson’s Dictionary. They are the key to how he created his book and the source of authority for all his definitions.
Though there had been English dictionaries for a century and a half before Johnson, we know almost nothing about how they were compiled. Johnson’s, though, gives us firsthand evidence about the process. He began not with a list of words but with English literature itself: he drew on his years of wide reading and his prodigious memory, and spent years reading and rereading great works in English. When he came across an example of a word that might be useful, he underscored that word in pencil, wrote its initial letter in the margin, and drew vertical lines at the beginning and the end of each passage he wanted to include. When he reached the end of each book he would hand it to one of his assistants—we know of at least six “amanuenses,” paid to copy and organize the materials—who would then transcribe the passages onto slips of paper. Johnson arranged those slips in alphabetical order by the words he wanted to illustrate, and for each word he worked to divide them into distinct senses.
Johnson was not the first lexicographer to use quotations from literature, but he was the first in English to do it on anything like his scale, and he used them to map the territory of the English language itself. For Johnson, words are words because they’ve been used by others. Words have the meanings they do because others have used them that way. It is not for the lexicographer to declare what a word means. Good lexicographers, he writes, “do not form, but register the language; [they] do not teach men how they should think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts.” He could not, of course, capture every variety of the language. He admits he is limiting himself to writing: collecting the spoken language simply wasn’t feasible. Though he sometimes mentions words limited to a regional dialect, the jargon of a single profession, or one social class, his preferred standard is educated and literary. By the standards of eighteenth-century linguistic theory, he was still remarkably forward-thinking. The Académie française made up its examples of usage, and if the great French authors of the past disagreed, the great French authors of the past were wrong. Not so for Johnson: words gained their meaning from their use, and no dictionary maker had the authority to veto the people who used words in ways he didn’t like.
Johnson saw his mission in almost nationalistic terms. He was, after all, trying to produce an English rival to the great national dictionaries of the European academies, and he believed English literature was the equal of French and Italian. As he puts it in his preface,
Nothing too modern would do: he believed that “our ancient volumes” should be “the ground-work of stile.” He therefore “studiously endeavoured to collect examples and authorities from the writers before the restoration [of the monarch in 1660], whose works I regard as the wells of English undefiled, as the pure sources of genuine diction.” But he didn’t want to look too far back:
Scholars have argued for generations over whether the quotations tell us anything about Johnson’s intellectual or political allegiances. He gives us good reason to think he was sometimes being ideological. “I might have quoted Hobbes as an authority in language,” he said in conversation, “but I scorned, sir, to quote him at all; because I did not like his principles.” David Hume, another philosopher he despised, is likewise excluded from the Dictionary. And while John Milton’s Paradise Lost is among the most quoted works in the entire book, Milton’s prose—where his republican politics and heterodox religious opinions are on display—is barely touched.
But the list of authors is hardly eccentric, and he covers the literary canon as people of his day understood it. Some writers appear less than their modern literary reputations might suggest. Christopher Marlowe, for instance, is a major figure today, but he is almost absent from the Dictionary: a quotation from “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” appears under girdle n.s. 1, but Johnson incorrectly attributes the poem to Shakespeare. William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, now ranked among the greatest works of medieval literature, are passed over entirely. But Marlowe was in low repute in the eighteenth century, Langland was known only to specialists, and Sir Gawain wasn’t known at all. Johnson was in the critical mainstream of his day.
Many of his favorite authors are literary giants: Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Milton, Dryden, Swift, Pope. Not all the most quoted names, though, are quite so familiar. Isaac Watts, a poet and hymn writer, and the theologian Robert South appear many hundreds of times each. Minor figures like Ambrose Philips, Edward Moore, playwrights Henry Brooke and Thomas Southerne, the translator of Homer George Chapman, the earl of Roscommon, Thomas Carew, epic poet Sir Richard Blackmore, Elijah Fenton, and James Bramston number in the hundreds, and he returned to some of them at the end of his career, writing their biographies for his Lives of the Poets. Other names are familiar to us but not as literary figures. Sir Isaac Newton, for instance, is quoted for words including gravity, lens, light, parallax, prism, rainbow, refraction, and vision. John Ayliffe supplied him with legal terms, Thomas Tusser was a good source of agricultural words, and John Locke provided the philosophical vocabulary. He had favorite authors to illustrate the botanical, nautical, theological, mechanical, diplomatic, and commercial words.
This shows the degree to which the quotations are the basis for everything he was doing in his dictionary. They provided him with his word list; they gave him the evidence for the different senses; they instructed him on what words meant. His job as a lexicographer is not to tell the world which words were legitimate and which meanings were proper. It was to listen to the great authors of the past—authors who were the equal of the great writers of Europe, using a language that was as good as French or Italian—and to tell the word how they used the language in their own words.