What Samuel Johnson Really Did

By Adams, Michael | Humanities, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview

What Samuel Johnson Really Did


Adams, Michael, Humanities


He made dictionaries matter

SAMUEL JOHNSON, POET, satirist, critic, lexicographer, and dyedin-the-wool conservative was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, on September 18, 1709. We are quickly approaching the tercentenary of Johnson's birth; scholars worldwide have been celebrating throughout the year. If someone's birthday is worth celebrating three hundred years after the fact, inevitably partygoers will spread their praise pretty thick, as praise for Johnson has been spread since James Boswell' s Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791. As a result, legend has sometimes obscured the truth. Among other aspects of his career, Johnson's contributions to English lexicography are often misunderstood. It serves both Johnson's legacy and the history of lexicography to revalue his influence on the modern dictionary.

Though he disparaged Johnson's style, as well as his literary and political judgment, Thomas Babington Macaulay, in the Edinburgh Review in 1831, admitted that, due to Boswell, Johnson would be "more intimately known to posterity than other men are known to their contemporaries." We tend to presume on that acquaintance. Johnson scholar Jack Lynch anticipated the tercentenary spirit by asserting (in the title of his recent selection) that Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language is the "work that defined the English language." The English language was doing pretty well before Johnson got involved; nevertheless, he has been taken for the Jupiter of lexicography since before his dictionary appeared in print in 1755. For all the mythology, you'd think English vocabulary had sprung fully formed and irreproachable from his prominent, Augustan forehead.

Johnson may well be the most celebrated lexicographer of English, yet many claims about his lexicography are exaggerated. Conventional wisdom holds that Johnson single-handedly conceived and produced A Dictionary of the English Language. Though he gave up several years of full-time work to the Dictionary, Johnson wasn't the first professional lexicographer: John Kersey, author of A New English Dictionary, published in 1702, probably owns that distinction. And Johnson did not write his dictionary alone: He had half a dozen assistants, and the history of lexicography tells us that assistants influence dictionary-making more than either eighteenth-century social hierarchies or the Great Author theory behind Johnson's reputation admits.

Nor was Johnson's the first dictionary to employ literary quotations to illustrate meaning or usage. Putting aside major early modern dictionaries produced in France, Italy, and Portugal, John Florio' s Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes was, in 1598, the first at least partially English dictionary to use quotations, and by no means the last preceding Johnson. Johnson is also often credited with introducing sense divisions into dictionary entries, but Benjamin Martin had used them in Lingua Britannica Reformata, published in 1749. Martin may have got the idea from Johnson's Plan of a Dictionary in 1747, for Johnson proposed to "sort the several senses of each word, and to exhibit first its natural and primitive signification," followed by "its consequential meaning," and then "the remoter or metaphorical signification." Whoever came up with it, no one doubts, in retrospect, that it was a good plan.

Johnson is admired for his witty definitions. No horticultural definition of oats for Johnson, but rather the infamous "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." Alas, for the mythographers, Johnson was not even the first English lexicographer to write a memorable definition. Everyone knows that Johnson defined lexicographer as 'harmless drudge'; or, at least, they know that someone did. Well over a century earlier, in 1611, however, Rändle Cotgrave, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues gave us "Brunette, brunet, brownish, somewhat browne . …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

What Samuel Johnson Really Did
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.