This month marks the 256th anniversary of the publication of “A Dictionary of the English Language,” the first definitive English dictionary. Today, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate the man behind the book, the famous (and infamous) Dr. Samuel Johnson.
“A Dictionary of the English Language,” also called Johnson’s Dictionary, is the work of one larger-than-life figure in English literary history. He created a widely imitated style of biography and literary criticism in addition to setting the meticulous tone of reference books. His cause was to make English, especially the great classics, accessible for all readers. His dictionary was the first book to address English as it was written and spoken. It was the first to include context-based information about English. And it was the first to attempt to enforce a standard of spelling and grammar upon unruly English, which had no equivalent of an academy to defend its use as proper or improper.
To understand Dr. Johnson’s undertaking, we first have to tell you about the state of English lexicography in the middle of the 18th Century: It did not exist. There were a handful of glossaries of difficult words, but overall, there was no reference for the English reader to consult if a word was unfamiliar. In addition, books were becoming widely available and literacy in England was growing. Several book publishers got together and commissioned Dr. Johnson to compile a dictionary similar to the one created by the French Academy. In France, that effort took 40 scholars 40 years to complete. Johnson, in a barb aimed at the supposed inferiority of the French, said he could do it in three: “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.” It took Johnson 9 years to complete.
The dictionary was huge: Its bulk was made up of the finest paper available, printed on pages cut to 18 inches in height. At the time, only special editions of the Bible had been printed on anything nearly so extravagant. Flipping open to any page, the curious reader could scan double columns of small type. Entries included a definition and a full-length quotation from a literary source. Notes on the word’s usage provided a context. The original included 42,773 entries with 114,000 literary examples. The examples were the only portion of the dictionary that assistants helped in compiling. Johnson wrote all the definitions himself with humor and style:
“Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
“Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman.”
[...] can call Ray — but don’t call Johnson. — Doctor’s dead, ya know. Aspergers didn’t kill him but the lemonade may have [...]
Lexicographer: a harmless drudge.
And he appears in an episode of Blackadder.
Why doesnt anyone know about this guy? Why is Webster so famous?
epic failure and what was he famous for???!!!!
Webster wrote the first AMERICAN dictionary. Johnson was British.
didn’t know this guy until this moment.
I like the way he explains a certain word
“Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
much more fun that what the dictionaries of today offers, and you would definitely carry a dictionary anywhere, why? more than a dictionary you can also read it when you are bored!
40 scholars in 40 years versus one scholar in 9 years = one word genius. xD
“It’s bulk was made up of the finest paper available…” Really, dictionary.com? “It’s”? You should be ashamed of yourselves…
“It’s” meaning “belonging to” as in “belonging to the dictionary, not “it is”
“See that dog? It’s name is Henry.” (the name belonging to the dog)
“It’s my birthday tomorrow!” (using “it is”)
even though “it’s” is technically incorrect i think it should be correct. ie the bulk of it= it’s bulk.
it’s logical, so why not
Mwahaha. Take that, Scotland.
@Olivia and @ice
Sorry, kiddos, but the word “it” when used as a possessive pronoun is ALWAYS “its,” without the apostrophe.
It’s not the same as possessive forms of proper or regular nouns, which require the apostrophe. “It’s” (with apostrophe) is just a contraction for “it is.” Nothing more, and never has been.
this man’s legacy should be celeberated with much fanfare than any of his successive lexicographers…. Any trailblazer or pioneer of the work is akin to God…to step a maiden foot forward in the realm of lexicography is nothing less than a divinity….. Hats off to Johnson
Wow, interesting! And also, grammatically, Hot Word is correct – its bulk not it’s bulk. Whenever referring to possessive pronouns, always use that.
Samuel Johnson wrote( Ib.16 Ocober 1769)
Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault.
WOW @Olivia and @ice
How old are you guys? Do you really not know the difference between “it’s” and “its”???? Shameful.
@Zachary thank you for educating them.
Thank you, Zachary! That was REALLLLY bothering me that everyone was getting that wrong.
Hey, guys and gals, have a little faith in dictionary.com!
In what universe isn’t Dr. Johnson “not famous”?
I heard about him before I could really read his works and I am not even a native speaker of the language.
The focus of the people living in today’s world is materialistic, fun and entertainment. The focus should be on leaving a legacy for posterity so that tomorrow’s world can be better place to live in. Dr Johnson did a great job for humanity and we should be grateful.
Hate it when I misspell a word on a dictionary site. Sorry: “would”.
I think it’s very entertaining to read all the comments. Love it!
Thank you, Zachary!
Patrick is right, have Faith.
Good dictionary no doubt but not much of relevance these days. But
why did you leave chesterfield episode? Dont you know it is so verry
interesting. By the bye you would also have mentioned his comment on The Chesterfielf^s Letters To His Son.
I love reading dictionary.com, it’s very interesting and curious webpage. It’s my web home page, everyday I learn something, and confirm any ambivalent words (I have so many of them) in a second. Great site, Thanks!
Laura, the passage reads (its bulk) which is correct.
You’re seeing things that aren’t there. Or, Yous seeing tings dat ain’t dere.
The article states that Dr. Johnson wrote the first English dictionary, not the first “American” dictionary. I would love for you to enlighten me, however, as to what might make an “American” dictionary different. The language is English any way you look at it.
thisss isss crazy , okaaee if he wrote the dictionary . how did he know all the wordsss&’dd meansss too all these words or he just made somee of them uhpppp . ii wanna know can somebody plzz explainn too meeehhhh !!!
Oh So Pogi. Here’s another word: support. He had it; and, now you have two:-)
why would Dr. Samuel Johnson be infamous ?
I love Dr Johnson’s dictionary. I ‘collect’ old books from the 1750’s – 1900. In most cases while reading these books, I have my Johnson’s dictionary open as well. It is nice to understand what the author meant when writing in 1820, rather than assume given today’s meaning.
If this subject interests you, I would humbly suggest reading Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman”, which has a chapter devoted to Dr Johnson’s dictionary.
Okay -so does anyone know who is responsible for this quotation? I had thought it was Samuel Johnson – but since he’s the original standardizer (for english), maybe that doesn’t make sense).
“Anyone who would spell a word the same way twice must be a very dull fellow indeed.”
i believe it was a comment made specifically on the concept of standardizing spelling.
yes and that is why england is known for its horses and scotland is known for its men.
He got seriously ill after he made the first dictionary… ouch
Oh man! 9 years for one book, he sure had perseverance…
Monsieur, you dog! Nerde..
For those interested: Do read the excellent story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s by Simon Winchester: “The Surgeon of Crowthorne”.
wow that is cool
Great site! Can someone please tell me how to suggest a topic? I’m wondering why “first”, “second” and “third” are not “oneth” twoth” and “threeth” like the rest of the numbers. Forth, fifth, sixth, etc. To try to stay at least a little on topic, its my confusion that causes my question. It’s my curiosity that I hope to assuage. Or is it a sausage.
For more information about Johnson, read Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.” It is a wonderful book.
@wordjunkie – American English and UK English are, in many ways, distinctively different. Many words are not spelled (or spelt) the same; we’re all familiar with British English spelling harbor as harbour and color as color, although they mean the same. Many words have different meanings, bonnet for a car hood, boot for the trunk, wing for the fender. British English also treats collectivity differently. In American we would say “Sony has released a new blu-ray player.” The British would say that “Sony have released a new blu-ray player.” since we look at Sony as a single entity and the Brits as all the people within Sony.
As Henry Higgens said about us and the English language, “And in America they haven’t used it [English] for years!”.
“The article states that Dr. Johnson wrote the first English dictionary, not the first “American” dictionary. I would love for you to enlighten me, however, as to what might make an “American” dictionary different. The language is English any way you look at it.”
If you study “English” you will soon find the difference …
Most people from the USA speak some kind of “American” … a few speak
“English”. In England, Canada, and Australia most speak some kind of “English” and a few speak a little “American” y’all. The difference lies in spelling, word usage and meaning. But surely you knew that!!!
PBS has had several in depth programs about this very topic.
i wish i could define all the english words…
@ Olivia, You put all that effort into showing us how ignorant you are. How can “it’s” be appropriate in this setting? “It is bulk…” Does that make any sense to you? Keep your uneducated comments to yourself.
Samuel Johnson, published his first dictionary, “A Dictionary of the English Language”, in 1755
Noah Webster, published his first dictionary, “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language”, in 1806
You ask why Webster is more famous, and the answer is he is probably more famous to you, if you are North American. He is not more famous to others, and notably not to the English.
You also asked how an English dictionary is different from an American dictionary, stating both use the English language. Indeed they do. However, the word “English” in the context to which you replied, meant “of England”, and not the language specifically.
This is a great website. I really enjoy reading the comments.
Wait a minute good question-Why doesnt anyone know about this guy? Why is Webster so famous?
Wow. I wonder if there’s ever been a dictionary.com article where there wasn’t an argument over it’s vs. its. (By the way, Zachary is correct. Olivia, you just made a fool of yourself-you should look something up before you go “teaching” someone a “lesson.”)
“…English, which had no equivalent of an academy to defend its use as proper or improper.” So, who or what does control or defend English language? I have heard about “L’Académie Française” or “La Real Academia de la Lengua Española”, but anything about English Language.
After reading this article, I went to Wikipedia, cross-referencing both Johnson & Webster.
To directly answer your question as to the differences, well, Johnson’s dictionary included humour obvious to Brit English people, which may not be so obvious to someone living in the US. The reverse is also true, w/ Webster’s dictionary including references that wouldn’t be obvious to the British.
Also, Webster’s dictionary was called, “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” Johnson’s was simply called, “Dictionary of the English Language.”
Certain words were/are spelled slightly differently, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on, plus, some definitions will be slightly different, for different purposes on each continent.
Yes, the language is still English, either way, but every locale has its own dialect. In some places, every HOUSE has its own dialect. That’s the natural “evolution” of language.
Thanks, @Zachary and @lungiswa. I’m glad that there are a few other people who still try to educate others about the English language. I taught ESL in Germany and I vow that English students there spoke and wrote better and more understandable English than 95% of the people in North America and, for that matter, in Great Britain.
Btw, I also loved Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman.” I highly recommend it, as well. It sounds like a dry book; it certainly isn’t.
@wordjunkie: Have you ever studied British English as compared to American English? Do you know that automobiles or autocars have boots and bonnets; or that in correct British English there’s honour, not honor, and favour and flavour, not favor and flavor. In fact, in correct English, Canadians are supposed to use these “-our” spellings as well. I could go on and on. I’m sure that to remember them all would take me at least 9 days, or 9 weeks–if not longer. Lots of articles of clothing also have different names. Then go to India or other countries which speak English as well as the original, native language and the same thing happens.
If you went to England, especially to the country, you would have real problems understanding what the people say. After all, there are differences within the US as well. Not everybody speaks TV or radio English all the time.
See if you can find a book written in Cockney English. That will show British English at its finest.
Cockney English? ~cringe~ LOL
I actually studied a bit of Brit English in high school, so I know some of the differences, but nowhere near all of them.
“in Germany … English students … spoke and wrote better and more understandable English than 95% of the people in North America and, for that matter, in Great Britain”
I speak Spanish fluently, as a second language, and I can tell you that I speak it better than 95% of native Spanish speakers I encounter here in the Los Angeles area (mostly from Mexico or Central and South America). Why? Because many of them have not studied formally as I have. Do they communicate? Yes. Do Americans communicate? Yes. Do Brits communicate? Yes. Why do languages evolve? Because new speakers (children) who learn the language in the home and in the community learn what is spoken there, not what is taught in a text book, right or wrong. We learn by imitation and repetition not only meaning, but pronunciation, hence different accents and nuances of meaning. Colloquialsims arise, and words eventually change in meaning. The word “let” for example, once meant “to restrain” but now means “to allow.” Frankly most people really don’t care to speak their native langage properly, they simply want to live their lives, raise their children, and go about their business.
Educated Spanish speakers that I have spoken with always speak it better than the less educated of the working class, but both communicate what they want to convey and that is the point of language. Compare Shakespearian English with today’s English. Is Shakespearian English correct? It was 400 years ago. Speaking of that, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, probably one of the finest works ever produced in the English language, in my humble opinion.
people in north america would not know the distance from hertford to hereford,no need for them;for they have their own new york and new jersey.
wow i didn’t know this guy in my life till now
Last night I didn’t feel like studying for my final exams, so I took up his Rasselas and read the opening chapters. It was so nice, and I think the fact dictionaty.com has a new post on Dr Johnson is a sign from God that I should give up studying and finish the novel.
This snarky definition added sunshine to my day! Short and to the point. LOL!
“Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman.”
My Prof. Tim R. Cullinan
graduated from the real Cambridge
use to say,
“English is a Hybrid Language”
So laws can’t be applied on every word
Now I have introduced many new words…
Read more and enjoy
@lungiswa ur so funny
Johnson was and is a giant. Read Rambler #3. Then read Rasselas. Then read everything he wrote. Most will be bored. But he was brilliant. His personal letters/diary entries are at times quite moving. God, I wish more people had the ability to read this kind of writing. Not anymore. When I first encountered Johnson (age 23, 31 years ago) I thought “What the…?”. Then I wanted to throw the book out the window. Then something clicked. Read Johnson! NOW!
As one version of a highly apocryphal Johnson story goes, Johnson had been traveling for weeks without access to a bath. At a social gathering, a woman complained about his disheveled state. “Doctor Johnson,” she said, “you smell.” Dr. Johnson, not one to argue against a truth–but always the defender of the language–responded, “No, madam. You smell, I stink.”
@US bear 2012
“we’re all familiar with British English spelling harbor as harbour and color as color, although they mean the same.”
Do you know, I think English may possibly have been first?
‘Harbour’ may then have been misspelled ‘Harbor’, and ‘colour’ as ‘color’
The word ‘British’ is superfluous, English as a language is ‘English’, all other versions [!], need the adjective.
Not to offend most of the British readers of this site, but the fact (as explained to me by a Doctor of English) is that the language changes less the further away (and more isolated) from the center of the language. Two examples: If you want to hear classic era Spanish, northern New Mexico is the place to go. To hear the closest approximation of Elizabethean English, the American Appalachians are your laboratory. I had heard about projects to catalogue old English folk songs in the Appalachians some years ago. While even many of us in the States would call these people hicks, I rest satisfied as a good Texan that I speak a closer dialect to Shakespeare than your modern Londoner (and for the record, Bush is from Connecticut and educated in the Northeast, his accent is a poor parody). Whether this tie to archaic English is a good or bad thing is in the ear of the hearer, I suppose.
(I apologize for any spelling and/or grammar mistakes in the abve, I haven’t slepts in 36 hours, and I’m much too tired to proof-read)
GB Shaw described the US & UK as “two nations divided by a common language.” I guess that’s why we need American English and British English dictionaries.
Smart guys…enough said, huh?
Someone said: “England and America–two great nations divided by a common language.”
Well, its so good to memorize people of great contribute to English nation as well as worldwide. thank you Dr.Samuel Johnson
I used to come into dictionary.com to see the meaning of a word I didn’t understand or couldn’t pronounce. I read the news on my computer every evening. Then I read the comics. Then I read or answer my email. I used to use Google for just about anything I wanted to know.
Then dictionary.com started put up this new stuff as soon as I enter the site. It was so darn interesting I just forgot what I came in here for and just followed where the site took me.
Now, it a routine part of my evening computer time. I come in just to see what’s new for the day. I used to be in and out of here in about two minutes. Now I end up in here for about 10 to 15 minutes a whack. I even had to alter my usual TV watching time because of this site.
I’m NOT complaining.., I LOVE IT !!! And, I’m getting smarter every day. If only I could remember everything I’ve read. I’m 81 years old and my brain is just about as full as it can get. I have to push some stuff out to allow some newer information in. But, BOY! Is it ever fun! Thanks dictionary.com. Youse guys are the greatest! Ole Ed
OOPS.. Forgot something. I love the comments that youse guys paste in here. Very thought provoking. Oh, and I purposely use the word “youse” instead of “you”.. Gotta show I’m from New Joisy . er Jersey. Ole Ed
I am living in the USA over 20 years, but grew up on the Island of Jamaica. I was taught the Queens English in school. It was quite a challenge adopting when I first moved here. I would get laughed at and was told I did not know English. It took me a while not to spell check (money) cheque etc. I quickly realized that ignorance was not very blissful and had to educate others that we are all the same but other parts of the world speaks differently and it was not about who was right or wrong. Now the laugh is on them, as I am well diverse on American and Queens English and consider this a blessing. “When life gives you lemon, use it to make lemonade”.
Why does Samuel Johnson look so angry in that picture?
There was a wonderful series for PBS (with a companion book) called “The Story of English.” What I appreciated was the respect accorded to every dialect or version of English — from Buckingham Palace to the coastal islands of North Carolina. Reading this has inspired me to seek out the DVDs of this series and watch it all over again.
I have the Oxford dictionary in two volumes which are also bulky…still to get all the words in, the writing is very small…so small, in fact, that it comes with its own magnifying glass. But the dust collects on it, as dictionary.com is now my source for words and word usage.
I meant – Well, I completely agree with what Zachary Overline expalined about the usage of ‘it’ (with/ without apostrophe). However, I assume ‘apostrophe’, being used in a sentence construction needs to be prefixed with AN article – ‘an’ and not ‘the’.
For instance – ‘an apostrophe’ and not ‘the apostrophe’
Two good books to read to get to know the differences between American and British English, both by Bill Bryson: “Notes from a Small Island” “Notes from a Big Country.” They are hilarious and really show the differences between America and the UK very well. Bryson is an American travel novelist who moved to England when he was a young backpacker and fell in love with one of the locals.
It’s cute, at 81 yrs of age, start your evening with “Dictionary.com” and “The Hot Word” before your e-mails, comics and news. Way to go! You’ll still be reading at 100 and your head will grow more receptive for new info by your challenging it day after day. Have fun!
Wow. I’m really not trying to sound snarky, but I thought most educated people knew not only Johnson but his biographer James Boswell. They are two of the most influential people in the history of English literature. (Samuel Pepys I could understand.)
@Boshango – that’s so right. In common usage, “sick” for modern UK “ill”, and “fall” for “autumn” come into this category of US preserving archaic English.
so many people, so much misinformation.
first of all, american spellings (and pronunciations to a lesser extent) are not ‘mistakes’ or ‘degradings’ of ‘proper’ english.
in the early 19th century, there was in america a very strong motivation to separate the two countries culturally, and the language was a fine place to do it.
so the ‘u’ disappeared out of many words [humour, colour, valour], and we got ‘tire’ and ‘fire’ rather than ‘tyre’ and ‘pyre,’ as well as having ’s’ become a ‘z’ in many words.
this was the politicisation of the language, and it was most deliberate – and webster was at the center of it. thankfully, someone stopped him short of shortening ‘tongue’ to ‘tung’…
oh, and by the way, the reason he looks so angry is that he was dyspeptic [i know you can look it up] and probably had tourette’s…
As Johnson began his dictionary project he sought the patronage of Lord Chesterfield, a major supporter of the arts. He was rebuffed after waiting in the Lord’s outer rooms. After the dictionary was finished, Lord Chesterfield praised the Dictionary and Johnson in an article. Johnson wrote a letter to the Lord in response:
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. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.
The Shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a Native of the Rocks. 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.
I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.
Ole Ed, you are awesome!
You can still visit Johnson’s home and then stroll down the street to his favorite pub (still there), “The Cheshire Cheese” and lift a glass to the great man…. For a long time, in more innocent years, a first edition of The Dictionary just lay out on a table in Johnson’s home.
i like this wedsite……. i dk how to talk to friendbut…this is awesome.. i can get on this durring school!!! lol peace evry one… ( if there is people getting on this)????
“I meant – Well, I completely agree with what Zachary Overline expalined about the usage of ‘it’ (with/ without apostrophe). However, I assume ‘apostrophe’, being used in a sentence construction needs to be prefixed with AN article – ‘an’ and not ‘the’.
For instance – ‘an apostrophe’ and not ‘the apostrophe’
Well, I should think that it would depend on whether THE apostrophe in question was a specific, or AN apostrophe amongst others.
Sorry, didn’t see the previous discussion!
In my humble opinion Morgill’s explanatory entry gets an A+ from this 1st time reader of all the comments on Dr. Johnson. There must be a word apropos to Dr. J’s satisfaction in embarrassing the indifferent/myopic Lord Chesterfield with his searing reply. Perhaps not too dissimilar from one of my old favorites, Shadenfreude.
No doubt about it, Sam Johnson was a giant in the world of letters.
You can still get a copy of his original dictionary, or at least a version ‘Abridged from The Reverend H. J. Todd’s Corrected and Enlarged Quarto Edition
By Alexander Chalmers F. S. A.’ from Barnes & Noble. I treasure my copy, a gift from my son.
But Johnson’s allusion to oats shows him as an ill-bred, and alas, not completely atypically, ignorant Englishman!.
I was brought up on ‘oats’ or rather oat meal – porridge, oatcakes, , oatmeal puddings, skirlie – and let me tell you, they are all delicious,as well as being healthful and richly nutricious.
Sure, we fed oats to our horses (real horses – Clydesdales, and to our cattle – Aberdeen Angus – and I am sure they enjoyed them as much as I did
Nice post . keep up the favorable work And like many individuals, it is likely you don’t have the expertise to take out said virus, making disease removal about as big a reach as, say, restoring your transmission or tailoring a suit.
today is my birthday!
[...] Did one man write the first great English dictionary all by … [...]
Who did write the first dictionary ON THEIR OWN WITH THEIR OWN WORDS?
I can’t think a man like a million years ago make a huge dictionary. He found all those WORDS!!!!!!!!!!!
I do the same thing as Ole Ed… when I first heard of Dictionary.com, I only went there to look up words I didn’t know. Now it is a site to visit when I am bored. I love all the extra information, for example I now know the difference between irony and sarcasm! When I tell people I get distracted on Dictionary.com, they look at me like I’m nuts, but they are missing out!
To add to the aposterphe disscusion…Zachary Overline is very smart but he should have said “an” instead of ‘”the”. “The” refers to one thing, but there are as many aposterphes as have ever been written, and you can use another one whenever you want to. It is infinite. Pretty cool.
Something I noticed… the first comment was written in April 2011. I am writing this in october 2012. The aposterphe disscusion, as I call it, took place a year and a half ago, but I can still think and comment on it.
Also pretty cool.
I just thought of something… I hope Ole Ed is still alive. He is awesome.
Someone needs to come up with another word for awesome.
pretty epic i say
I’m astonished since my comment of exactly a year ago to realize that there are people who haven’t heard of Johnson. None of them I’m sure are in England. Anyone who has ever taken a British Literature class in high school or college has heard of him (or the teacher was not doing his/her job). Anyone who has studied Shakespeare or the 18th Century has heard of him. If he had never created this dictionary, he’d still be famous.