Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

A Birthday Card for Dr. Johnson

Today, September 18th, is Samuel Johnson's 300th birthday. The English essayist, poet, novelist, and witty conversationalist whom we know mostly through the anecdotes recorded by his friend and biographer, James Boswell, and his other friends, became famous in his day for his two-volume Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, wishes Dr. Johnson a happy birthday — and a happy birthnight.

It may have been Noah Webster, who was half a century younger, whose name would become synonymous with dictionary, but no lexicographer rivaled Samuel Johnson in turning out elegant, opaque, intricate, and occasionally witty definitions for words both familiar and obscure.

Johnson defined lexicographer as "a harmless drudge" (s.v.) and dictionary-making as "dull work" (s.v. dull, sense 8), but he surely enjoyed cranking out definitions for odd words like dandiprat, "an urchin," fopdoodle, "a fool," giglet, "a wanton," and jobbernowl, "a block head."

Besides the occasional definitional joke, like Johnson's often-repeated definition of oats, we also find in his dictionary words whose meaning has changed: fireman, "a man of violent passions," pedant, "a schoolmaster," and jogger, which Johnson characterizes as movement that is far from aerobic, and he liberally illustrates his definitions with citations from well-known literary and scientific sources:


dull, sense 8,

oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people

jogger, 'one who moves heavily and dully; one who plods'

Urinator, for Johnson, is "a diver," while urine, "animal water," hasn't changed all that much.


There are "low words," like bum and fun:

 Bum, the buttocks; the part on which we sit

 fun, a low cant word,

There are plenty of strange words, like obstipation:

obstipation, the act of stopping up any passage

not to mention autology, a kind of neoclassical ego trip, and oary, used by major authors to describe the oversized neoclassical foot:

autology, a speaking of, or to one's own self

oary -- having the form or use of oars

Johnson's definition of crank (he says it's sometimes corrupted to cranky) as "healthy; sprightly," seems the opposite of what it means today:

crank, healthy, sprightly

Johnson's dictionary contains mistakes, both subtle and blatant. He traces peacock back to an original "peak cock, from the tuft of feathers on its head." In fact, the word is based on the Old English bird name pea, from the Latin pava. But 18th-century derivations are often wrong. A popular set of etymologies that Johnson does not copy derives woman from womb-man, web-man, or woe to man:

Nathan Bailey derives woman from 'womb + man' and suggests the connection 'woe to man'
Nathan Bailey, in his Dictionarium Britannicum (1736), derives woman from
web + man, 'a weaving person,' and mentions the popular etymology 'woe to man.'

Webster's definition of woman
The word woman comes from the Old English wifman, which literally means 'female person.'
A corresponding form,
*werman, 'male person,' which does not occur in the Old English
database, would be the masculine equivalent (however, we do find examples of
wer and
werwulf). But in his 1828 Dictionary, Noah Webster, whose family name derives from a word
meaning 'woman weaver' (
-ster is a feminine suffix in Old English; the masculine equivalent
webster would be webber — compare spinner, spinster) buys into a popular but incorrect
etymology tracing woman to womb + man, an etymology that Johnson did not credit.

But while he doesn't repeat the "woe to man" canard, Johnson is certainly no feminist. He gives the primary meaning of man as "human being," but also adds the definitional caveat, "not a woman":

man, human being; not a woman

Some of Dr. Johnson's definitions are wrong. He treats windward and leeward as synonyms, when in fact they are opposites (he also classifies leeward as an adjective, windward, an adverb):

leeward, adjective; 'towards the wind'

windward, adverb; 'towards the wind'

But some of the definitions are just more opaque or infathomable than the words they define:











It's fitting to end this digital birthday tribute to Dr. Johnson with his own matter-of-fact definition of birthday, "the day on which any one is born,"


together with his definition of the much less common word, birthnight:


So let me join all of Dr. Johnson's fans in wishing the outspoken English lexicographer — if Johnson were alive today, Boswell would be recording his pithy gripes and witticisms in tweets — a happy birthday, and a happy birthnight. And here's my birthnight card for Dr. J:

Ball of Fire, 1941 movie with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck
A Hollywood ending for a latter-day Dr. Johnson: in "Ball of Fire," a seldom-seen 1941
movie directed by Howard Hawks, with screenplay by Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper stars as an
ivory-tower lexicographer working on slang who realizes that he needs to hear how real
people talk, and ends up helping a beautiful singer (Barbara Stanwyck) escape from the mob.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Friday September 18th 2009, 6:17 AM
Comment by: Bruce T.
An excellent and informative read. Thank you.
Friday September 18th 2009, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
What fun. I am never disapointed by these columns about words and word usage
Saturday September 19th 2009, 10:24 AM
Comment by: kathryn M. (San Diego, CA)
Frolickfome delight!

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Mim Harrison thinks that April 15th should be remembered as Johnson's Dictionary Day, not Tax Day.
A blog celebrates Johnson's tercentennial with a word a day from his most famous dictionary.
Last year, a new online dictionary was rolled out on Dr. Johnson's birthday.