Go to navigation (press enter key)Menu

The Sources of Johnson’s Dictionary

By Robert DeMaria, Jr.
Henry Noble Professor of English, Chair, Department of English

In 1746, when he signed the contract to write A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson was known as the author of a learned poem called London (1738), as a literary handyman for the Gentleman’s Magazine, and as a prospective editor of Shakespeare (his proposals had come out in 1745). He was not a literary star, although he had a small, solid reputation. Seven London booksellers, representing five different firms, showed good judgment and some daring in asking Johnson to write the Dictionary, and the man most responsible for his selection was undoubtedly Robert Dodsley. He had quite recently engaged Johnson to write both an introduction and a concluding fable for an educational text entitled The Preceptor, and Johnson had worked earlier with a couple of Dodsley’s associates in the trade, Mary Cooper and James Crokatt, Johnson told Boswell that the idea of writing a dictionary had “grown up insensibly in his mind,” but it is unlikely he would ever have written it if Dodsley and the others had not first conceived of the project and hired Johnson to do it.

How much direction the booksellers gave Johnson about the design of the Dictionary is debatable. The earliest document relating to the Dictionary, “A Short Scheme for compiling a new Dictionary of the English Language,” bears the comments of two readers, and the next draft bears further comments, eight of them supplied by Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield, an important politician, an arbiter of taste, and a potential patron for the expensive enterprise. Johnson initially addressed his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, the final draft of these preliminary works, to Chesterfield and bore in mind Chesterfield’s prescriptive approach to language, but over the long haul of writing the work Johnson proceeded in ways inimitably his own. By the time he finished the work, Johnson did not speak as an optimistic prescriptivist, if he had ever really been one.

The deck was stacked against prescription from the start because Johnson decided in the beginning to quote English authors to show the proper usage of words. Moreover, rather than look for quotations that exemplified the ideal proper usage, Johnson proceeded empirically, for the most part, reading “good” authors and recording how they used the language. Johnson’s was the first English dictionary to quote extensively in order to demonstrate the meanings of words in this way, and he carried the empirical procedure in lexicography much further than any of the academies of the continent had in their dictionaries. Still, Johnson was not radically empirical: he chose those whom he considered the best and most useful authors, and he limited his selections, mainly, to the period from 1588–1745. Dodsley gave Johnson a list of the authors whom Alexander Pope had recommended that a lexicographer consult, and Johnson took up most of them. He declared that Pope would have been pleased with the work, but he left out Pope’s friend Bolingbroke and he rejected his recommendation of Hobbes. Both writers, Johnson felt, were impious, and Johnson was determined to quote authors who would teach morality and other useful topics at the same time that they demonstrated the received usage of English words. He said in the Preface to the Dictionary: “When first I collected these authorities, I was desirous that every quotation should be useful to some other end than the illustration of a word; I therefore extracted from philosophers principles of science; from historians remarkable facts; from chymists complete processes; from divines striking exhortations; and from poets beautiful descriptions.” He hoped these quotations, in addition to teaching the meaning of words, would “relieve the labour of verbal searches, and intersperse with verdure and flowers the dusty desarts of barren philology.”

Johnson’s great program of reading began with the obvious: he took 17,500 of his quotations from Shakespeare, about fifteen percent of the total. Another 7,500 came from Dryden, and many thousands more from Bacon, Hooker, Locke, Pope, Milton, Robert Boyle, and the King James version of the Bible. He gathered another large number from other dictionaries and encylopedias, such as Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum, Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopedia, and Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary. All of these choices were practically obligatory, but Johnson also chose works that were less obvious. For example, to exemplify many terms of science Johnson read a number of works of “physicotheology,” a kind of science writing in which the author shows that nature is a “standing revelation” of the “wisdom, power, and glory” of God. Some of these works were really series of lectures funded by a bequest from the chemist Robert Boyle. Richard Bentley, a famous classicist, gave the first “Boyle Lectures,” and they are quoted many times in the Dictionary.

For divines, Johnson chose from the mainstream of the Church of England: John Tillotson, Francis Atterbury, and Robert South are among the most conspicuous. Dissenters from the high church creep in around the edges: William Law, John Calamy, and, despite the fact that Johnson said he banned him, Samuel Clarke. However, quotations from these writers are rare, whereas Tillotson and South appear on nearly every page, and Johnson was, with some justice, accused of using the Dictionary as a vehicle for “high-flying,” conservative Tory thinking. Closer inspection shows that Johnson’s book rarely exposes itself to censure from one end or the other of the political spectrum. He keeps to the mainstream as much as possible and rarely expresses specific views.

Nevertheless, no Johnsonian work exists without some marks of his overpowering personality, and characteristically Johnson steps out of his role as impartial dictionary-maker many times in the course of compiling his great book. In some of the most famous instances he defines “lexicographer” as “a harmless drudge”; he exemplifies “dull” with the sentence, “to make dictionaries is dull work”; he hails his home town under “Lichfield,” in Latin; and, in Greek, he salutes his professional home under “Grub Street.” Elsewhere, under the word “caitiff,” he makes an anti-slavery remark by citing a Greek aphorism that declares that slavery decimates virtue. He defines “Whig” rather derisively as “the name of a faction,” whereas “tory” is “one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England, opposed to a whig.” In addition to these “gems,” there are bits of the Dictionary that seem even more fully personal. Under “cork,” for example, Johnson cannot resist quoting from Horace, arguably his favorite poet, a toast for the first day of March. It is nice to imagine it was the first of March when he copied the quotation into his book, but we shall never know. Likewise, we shall never know exactly how it is that there are many quotations in the Dictionary that come from books never quoted again or quoted merely once or twice again. An Essay on the Art of Tormenting, for example, a mock manners book by Jane Collier, appears just twice. We can only speculate that Johnson picked up the book in an idle hour and jotted down the sentence with the unusual work “prink.” He did this sort of thing often, and he made his great book a monument not only to the giants of English literature but also to his own inveterate practice of desultory reading.

When he finished the Dictionary in 1755, Johnson was hailed in England and abroad. He became famous, though not rich. He had in the meantime written the Rambler, and he soon embarked on the more popular Idler. He also entered the period of his greatest political activity when he spoke out strongly in opposition to the Seven Years War. By the time that war was over, Johnson was pensioned by the government of George III. A year later, in 1763, he met Boswell, and his fame continued to spread. In 1765 he published his landmark edition of Shakespeare, and from 1779–81 his celebrated lives of the English poets. The Dictionary, however, remained the great work of his life. More than anything else in his works, the Dictionary sums up Johnson’s life of reading and writing. Quite literally, it helps to define everything else he wrote, and, at the same time, it contains a kind of personal literary diary – what he once called his “fortuitous and unguided excursions into books.” Remarkably, in the year after his death (1785) more editions of the Dictionary were undertaken than of any other of Johnson’s works. Especially given the size and expense of these works, their publication shows closely identified Johnson was, and always will be, with his great book. To celebrate the Dictionary is to celebrate Johnson.