A short interesting history of Doctor Johnson’s celebrated Dictionary of the English Language
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is his crowning achievement: it is more famous than his one novel (Rasselas) and, although he was also a gifted poet, it is for his lexicography above all else that Johnson is remembered. First published in two large volumes in 1755, the book’s full title was A dictionary of the English Language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. To which are prefixed, a history of the language, and an English grammar. It’s no surprise that it’s usually known as ‘Johnson’s Dictionary’. What follows are some of our favourite interesting facts about Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary – a monumental achievement in English literary scholarship.
Johnson’s wasn’t the first English dictionary: before his, there had been several such works. Richard Mulcaster had compiled a list of English words in the sixteenth century (albeit without definitions), and in 1604 Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall had appeared. Lexicography was as much about borrowing and improving as it was about creating from scratch. Johnson’s Dictionary itself drew heavily on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730), which in turn had relied on John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708), which itself had borrowed generously from John Harris’s An Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1704). But none of these was on the same scale as Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. A far greater size and scope would be what Johnson, in 1755, brought to the table – the ‘table alphabeticall’, that is. It would take him nine years to complete, working with several assistants.
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