Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 15, 2014
Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language

April 15, 1755: Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language is published. In June of 1746, a group of London booksellers approached Johnson and asked him to write a dictionary for 1,500 guineas or about £210,000 ($350,000) in today’s money. Dictionaries already existing were simply not up to the task. As more people became literate, a greater number of publications were available and it became economical to also produce a dictionary the masses could afford. With the explosion of printed material, it was necessary to create a set of rules for grammar, definitions, and spellings for the words defined. Johnson thought it would take him about three years to complete a new dictionary – it took nine years, instead.

Over the previous 150 years, there had been over twenty dictionaries published. The oldest was a Latin-English “wordbook” by Sir Thomas Elyot and published in 1538. Sixty years later, an Italian-English dictionary was the first to use quotations as illustrations of word usage. None of these early dictionaries actually included the definition for the English words. Next up was a listing by Robert Cawdrey called “Table Alphabeticall” published in 1604 which made it easier to find the English word one was looking for. It contained 2,449 words and none of them began with the letters w, x, or y. Many more dictionaries were published and by 1721 Nathan Bailey listed 40,000 words in his.

All these remarkable books still did not fit our definition of what a dictionary should be. They were little more than lists, usually poorly organized and poorly researched, of what were considered to be “hard words” which meant they were technical, foreign, obscure, or antiquated. They did not give illustrations of how the words were used in English. Dr. Johnson was given the task of improving on these older books and tried to remedy all these failings from prior works. The hope to get the book into the hands of masses was dashed when the scope of the book was taken into consideration. The English language is full of words. Many words. Too many words.

The book was large and expensive, costing £1,600 – more than Johnson earned to write it. The pages were 18 inches tall an almost 20 inches wide. No bookseller could print it without help. Other than some copies of the Bible, no book of this size had been set to type. There were only 42,773 words included, but they were defined (by synonyms) and illustrated with literary quotations which gave English usage meaning to the words. There were about 114,000 quotations included. Johnson also included notes, sometimes including humor, to give extra shades of meaning to the words. The Oxford English Dictionary, which finally replaced Dr. Johnson’s work, took forty years to complete and contains nearly 750,000 words.

I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words.

Excise: a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words

Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people – all from Samuel Johnson

Also on this day: Going for the Gold – In 1896, the first Modern Olympic Games come to an end.
Cartography – in 1924, Rand McNally published its first atlas.
Leonardo – In 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was born.
Sunk – In 1912, the Titanic sunk.

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  1. Bougie 1462 said, on April 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Reblogged this on Bougie 1462.

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