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The Man behind the Dictionary

By Jack Lynch


James Watson after Sir Joshua Reynolds
SAMUEL JOHNSON, 1770
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Modern dictionaries are the work of large faceless committees, carried out by teams of professionals, directed by editorial committees, and aided by squads of freelance workers. It’s almost impossible to hear the individual voice of the lexicographer.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language is different. It’s almost entirely the work of one person, and that person is one of the most important writers of the eighteenth century—so important that the period is sometimes called “the age of Johnson.” Johnson was profoundly learned and morally serious; he could also be perverse and wickedly funny, or gloomy and anxious. He was a scholar of prodigious energy, a polemicist of intense passion, and a brilliant conversationalist. All these qualities show through in his Dictionary, especially in the great preface, where he speaks in a personal voice we find in no other dictionary.

He came a long way. Johnson was born in September 1709 in Lichfield, a cathedral town in England’s West Midlands. His health was poor from birth—he called himself “A poor, diseased infant, almost blind”—and never really got better. He suffered from tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, and was nearly blind in one eye and nearly deaf in one ear. His mental health, too, was a constant challenge. He suffered from what we would call clinical depression, and his convulsions and habit of muttering words, which his contemporaries saw as eccentricities, are consistent with a modern diagnosis of Tourette syndrome.

Though the term wasn’t used then, Johnson’s family was what we’d call middle-class, neither rich nor poor. His father, Michael Johnson, was a bookseller—the shop was the ground floor of the family’s house—and he was respected enough to hold local civic offices. Samuel received a decent elementary education in the local schools, learning to read and write in both English and Latin, but it was the years spent in a bookshop that made him a voracious reader.

In the 1720s, as Johnson was approaching adulthood, only a tiny fraction of the population got a university education, but he had the opportunity to study at Oxford. His parents struggled to come up with the tuition payments, but extended family provided financial help, and he matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford, in October 1728. But his Oxford days did not last long. Michael Johnson invested poorly and his business failed. Plagued by melancholy and financial distress, Johnson was forced to leave Oxford without a degree after just thirteen months. He would never graduate, though Oxford would eventually award him several honorary degrees.

He returned home to Lichfield in late 1729 profoundly depressed, and for three years, friends and family feared he had suffered a complete psychological breakdown. Money was a constant source of worry. Having trained for no profession he worked as a teacher at Market Bosworth Grammar School, but without a degree he was ineligible for promotion to a better position. In 1735 he found some relief when he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow twenty years his senior, whom he affectionately called “Tetty.” Using the money she brought to the marriage, he opened his own school at Edial, two miles (three km) from Lichfield. One of his students was David Garrick, who would later become the most celebrated actor of eighteenth-century England. But the school never attracted more than a few pupils, and was forced to close in just over a year. Johnson had burnt through his wife’s money and had nothing to show for it.

He therefore resolved to go to London and make his living as a writer. He particularly hoped to make a reputation as a playwright with his in-progress verse tragedy, Irene, telling the story of a Greek Christian in Constantinople when the city falls to the Sultan Mahomet in 1453. But the odds of striking it rich with a verse tragedy set in fifteenth-century Constantinople were only slightly better in the 1730s than they would be today, and Johnson found no one willing to produce or publish it. And so he was sucked into the world known as Grub Street. Grub Street was an actual place in London but, as Wall Street stands for the financial industry and Madison Avenue means the advertising industry, Grub Street stood for the milieu of cheap publication for quick money. The 1730s saw the birth of magazines as we know them, monthly publications containing a variety of news, moral essays, poems, and book reviews. Johnson offered his services to the first and best known of these, the Gentleman’s Magazine, founded in 1731, the first periodical to use the word magazine in its title. He also agreed to translate a narrative of travels through “Abyssinia” (Ethiopia) originally published by Jerónimo Lobo in Portuguese. He published a few poems, including one of his best, London (1738), a satire on the city he came to love. And he spent the early 1740s cataloging the great library of Edward Harley, second Earl of Oxford.

This miscellaneous work provided an income, but Johnson was frustrated that he was wasting his vast intellectual talents. That changed in 1746, when he was approached by a group of booksellers (the eighteenth-century term for publishers) about compiling an English dictionary. There had been English dictionaries for a century and a half, but everyone agreed that not even the best English dictionaries could compare to the great works on the Continent. The national dictionaries of Europe were prepared by academies—the Accademia della Crusca in Italy produced the Vocabolario in 1612, and the Académie Française published its great Dictionnaire in 1694. English dictionaries were conceived on a smaller scale, covered much less of the vocabulary, and received no recognition from the state. The booksellers thought it was time for a truly monumental dictionary of English, and something led them to approach the up-and-coming writer.

Johnson promised to produce a dictionary on the scale of the great Italian and French dictionaries in just three years. People found it hard to believe: the French Academy’s dictionary, for instance, was completed by a team of forty scholars working for forty years. Johnson’s response is famous for its nationalist bravado: “This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”

Large publishing projects of this sort usually depended on the patronage system, in which a writer would approach a prominent person—usually a nobleman—and agree on an exchange. The patron would support the writer financially while he or she was at work, and the writer would return the favor in a dedication praising the patron’s learning, benevolence, and taste. Johnson therefore approached Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, well known as a supporter of literature. Chesterfield, though, was unimpressed by the no-name scholar asking him for money. Chesterfield gave him at least one payment of £10—respectable, but not enough to live on—and after that gave him only the cold shoulder. Johnson was therefore forced to produce his book with no aristocratic support.

The booksellers paid him a generous 1,500 guineas (£1,575), but it was not enough to support himself and the assistants he had to pay. The Dictionary alone would not be enough to support him, so he continued to work as a miscellaneous writer. His best-known poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, was published in January 1749. Four weeks later his play Irene, which had been shelved for more than a decade, was finally produced by his old friend David Garrick, who had risen to become manager of Drury Lane Theatre. (It was received respectfully but not enthusiastically, and was never revived.) And in March 1750 he began writing a series of essays known as The Rambler; every Tuesday and Saturday for two years he delivered a few pages of meditation on some subject. The Rambler never achieved the popularity of The Tatler and The Spectator, but readers admired Johnson’s learning and moral seriousness.

Still he was unhappy; in January 1751 he asked God to show mercy on “my wants, my miseries, and my sins.” And things were to get much worse. In March 1752 his wife died. His friends confessed they never saw what Johnson saw in Tetty; she struck them as vulgar, uneducated, and unattractive. Johnson, though, loved her sincerely, and her loss hit him hard. It was among the causes of the “gloom of solitude” he laments in the preface to the Dictionary: “I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds.”

Through it all he kept working on the Dictionary. Johnson promised a dictionary in three years. He missed that self-imposed deadline, as he missed nearly all publishing deadlines in his life. The work took nine years instead of three, but by late 1754 he had completed all the compilation, the printing was far advanced, and he was looking forward to the next project. But then he heard from the person he least expected: Lord Chesterfield, who had ignored his request for patronage in 1747. The word on the street was that the dictionary was going to be a major literary event, and Chesterfield wanted it to be dedicated to him. So he anonymously published a pair of essays in a magazine called The World, declaring that the English language was in terrible shape—“in a state of anarchy”—and needed Johnson’s firm guidance. “I hereby declare that I make a total surrender of all my rights and privileges in the English language,” he wrote, “as a free-born British subject, to the said Mr. Johnson, during the term of his dictatorship. Nay more; I will not only obey him, like an old Roman, as my dictator, but, like a modern Roman, I will implicitly believe him as my pope, and hold him to be infallible while in the chair.”

Johnson wanted to be nobody’s pope nor emperor, and found Chesterfield’s letter insulting. On 7 February 1755, he replied with a caustic letter rejecting Chesterfield’s advance and asserting his proud independence as an author:

Seven years, My lord have now past since I waited in your outward Rooms or was repulsed from your Door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of Publication without one Act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. . . . Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known, and do not want it.

The book appeared on 15 April 1755, in two huge folio volumes, with no dedication.

The Dictionary was well received; those in the know recognized it as a milestone as soon as it appeared. Adam Smith, later famous for The Wealth of Nations, wrote, “The merit of its author appears very extraordinary. . . . [Johnson has] made a very full collection of all the different meanings of each English word, justified by examples from authors of good reputation.” But the praise did not translate into impressive sales. The book was far too expensive for most buyers, and an attempt to sell it in 165 weekly installments fared no better. But a year after the folio Dictionary appeared it was followed by a shorter version, leaving out all the quotations, and sales were good. As the years passed it became ever clearer that Johnson’s work surpassed all the English competition, and could stand proudly beside the Italian and French academies’ dictionaries. He earned the nickname “Dictionary Johnson.”

Just a year after publishing the Dictionary, Johnson took on another huge task: an eight-volume scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s plays, collecting the explanatory notes and textual emendations of all his predecessors. Again he promised the book much sooner than he was able to deliver it: he said it would appear in just over a year, when in fact it took him nine years, as long as the Dictionary. And though he now had a reputation as an author, money was still short. Several times he was forced to borrow from friends, a grave insult to his pride, and he was even briefly sent to debtor’s prison when he was unable to repay a debt. To make matters worse, while he was working on the Shakespeare edition in 1759 he received word that his mother, still in Lichfield, had died. He quickly wrote a short work of fiction, Rasselas, to pay the expenses of his mother’s funeral. Rasselas became one of his best-known works, and has remained in print to this day.

In 1762 the government honored him with an annual pension of £300, not enough to make him rich, but his constant worries about money were finally over. And in May 1763 he was introduced to a young Scottish man who had recently moved to London. James Boswell was thirty-one years his junior, and in awe of Johnson’s celebrity. They became fast friends, and from early in their time together Boswell decided he would eventually write Johnson’s biography. Thanks to Boswell we have hundreds of pages of Johnson’s conversation and correspondence, and we know more about his day-to-day life than any other literary figure.

Many new editions of the Dictionary, in both its full folio form and its octavo abridgment, appeared over the years, though Johnson had little to do with their publication. In 1772, though, he decided the work needed a revision. He spent that year adding new words and meanings, sharpening definitions, and finding better quotations. The revised version came out in 1773.

Later that same year, Johnson finally took Boswell up on an offer he’d made a decade earlier: together they would tour Boswell’s native Scotland. Johnson, then sixty-one, had fantasized about travel but had never left his native England. Scotland was at this point part of Great Britain, but it was new to him—and the region they planned to visit, the Hebrides, a peninsula off Scotland’s west coast, struck many people as beyond the civilized world. Boswell “mentioned our design to Voltaire. He looked at me, as if I had talked of going to the North Pole.” But the two traveled together for more than a hundred days, and each wrote an account of the tour—Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1775 and Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. ten years later.

Johnson’s last major publication was, like the Dictionary, a “booksellers’ project,” one proposed to him by publishers. A group of booksellers was planning a huge collection of the best poets in English from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in fifty-six pocket-sized volumes. The publishers asked Johnson, by this point the most famous man of letters in England, to provide short prefaces to each of their works. They expected brief headnotes, but he obliged with ten volumes titled Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets (1779–81), later better known under the title Lives of the Poets. It is one of the century’s greatest works of literary criticism.

Johnson’s health was bad from beginning to end. Late in life he suffered from asthma, gout, and congestive heart failure. In 1783 a stroke left him temporarily unable to speak. And concern for the fate of his soul—he was constantly oppressed by fear that he would not be among the saved—kept him ever more anxious and gloomy as his physical health declined. As he explained it to his old college friend William Adams, “As I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.” Adams, thinking he could not be speaking literally, asked him directly: “What do you mean by damned?” Johnson was just as direct, responding “passionately and loudly,” “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.”

Johnson finally died in December 1784 at the age of seventy-five. He was buried in “Poet’s Corner,” the part of Westminster Abbey where many of England’s greatest writers were buried. Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Francis Beaumont, Michael Drayton, Abraham Cowley, William Davenant, John Denham, John Dryden, Matthew Prior, and John Gay were among the authors Johnson quoted most often in the Dictionary, and on his death he finally joined their company.

For more information about Samuel Johnson, see the Bibliography and Links pages.