Behind the Dictionary

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April 15th: A Most Taxing Day for Dictionaries

While most of us view April 15th as the day the tax man cometh (and our income goeth), it marked a more auspicious occasion in 1755. That was the day Samuel Johnson published his massive two-volume, 42,773-word dictionary of the English language. Mim Harrison, founding editor of Levenger Press, takes a look back.

Although not the first scholarly compilation of the language, Dr. Johnson's work is considered the first true dictionary of the English language. He didn't define merely the "hard" words, as was the wont of some earlier English lexicographers — although he did include such inkhorns as rotundifolious and galericulate. Johnson wrestled with the more pedestrian words as well, such as puff and news.

Shakespeare yes, Milton iffy

The idea of defining everyday words was almost as revolutionary then as the concept of wiki is now. What, a dictionary with words people could actually use? Yes, said Johnson:

"It is not enough that a dictionary delights the critic, unless at the same time it instructs the learner."

It is to Johnson we owe the now common device in dictionaries of citing passages that show the word in use, a technique the Oxford English Dictionary would later emulate. Johnson was picky about whom he quoted. Only great writers such as Shakespeare and Spenser and Bacon would do (and, okay, the Bible). Although he adverted to Milton, he made it clear he wasn't wild about the guy's Paradise Lost. "None ever wished it longer," he opined.

The best-laid plans?

If Johnson sounds a bit curmudgeonly, he was. But who can blame him? The dictionary had taken him nine taxing years to publish. His patron had bailed on him. And perhaps most annoying, his work had not gone according to plan.

Johnson had set out in his London garret to tame the wild beast called the English language. His dictionary was to be a proscriptive pronunciation on the words we would use. After nearly a decade, he realized that the beast could not be tamed. English was just too darn dynamic.

Modern words with antique meanings

These many years later, Johnson's Dictionary still resonates. Of the many delights to be discovered in this logophile's treasure trove are the "who knew?" terms. These are the words we think of as being quite modern but that were around way back in the day. Some of their meanings, however, sound quite amusing.

Here are a few, along with excerpts from the great Doctor J's definitions of them:

  • electricity.  "Bodies electrified by a sphere of glass, turned nimbly round, not only emit flame, but may be fitted with such a quantity of the electrical vapour, as, if discharged at once upon a human body, would endanger life."

    Johnson apparently knew that on the other side of the pond, Benjamin Franklin had tinkered with an electrifying notion. Johnson was not a fan of Americans, though, castigating them for allowing slavery.

  • encyclopedia.  "The circle of sciences; the round of learning."

    It's doubtful Johnson would approve of how today's encyclopedias and dictionaries are compiled. The idea of contributors, editors and committees is not one he would subscribe to. Johnson's Dictionary is the work of a solo lexicographer — "a harmless drudge," as he wryly defined the word. It is the antithesis of today's wiki method.

  • evolution. "The act of unrolling or unfolding."

    Johnson went on to give examples of evolution — in geometry, in tactics and in algebra. It would be another century before the word became inextricably linked with species and their origin.

  • finesse.  "Artifice; stratagem: an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language."

    This was a snipe at the French, of course. Johnson's Dictionary is a great source for put-downs, as it's replete with insulting words. Try clodpate, fopdoodle, ninnyhammer and a personal favorite, slubberdegullion.

  • flasher. "A man of more appearance of wit than reality."

    Today we would probably say that a flasher has neither wit nor reality, but Johnson's definition comes close to how we still use the term.

  • penguin. "A bird. This bird was found with this name, as is supposed, by the first discoverers of America; and penguin signifying in Welsh a white head, and the head of this fowl being white, it has been imagined, that America was peopled from Wales?."

    Modern lexicographers venture the Welsh gwyn (white) and pen (head) theory of etymology but don't carry it to Johnson's idea of America's being populated by the Welsh (calling all Gwyneths). His animal definitions are often delightful — a cat is "a domestick animal that catches mice."

  • plastick.  "Having the power to give form."

    In Johnson's Dictionary, an English word never ended in c — hence the k. (And there were no words that began with x.) Plastics as we know them wouldn't come on the scene until the 1870s, with celluloid, and the early 1900s, with Bakelite.

  • sneaker. "A large vessel of drink."

    Even earlier than Johnson's day, "sneaker" defined a person who was a sneak. (Hence the soft-soled shoes that let the wearer quietly sneak up on someone.) But Johnson's definition was one that the Spectator used. In fact, the Spectator was Johnson's singular citation for this word. Who knows?

  • suburb. "Building without the walls of a city."

    And here, another surprise: Shakespeare was Johnson's first citation for the word. "There's a trim rabble let in; are all these your faithful friends o' th' suburbs?" is from Shakespeare's Henry VIII. Johnson relegated a citation from Milton to his second definition, "the confines, the outpart."

  • vermicelli. "A paste rolled and broken in the form of worms."

    We can only wonder what he might make of SpaghettiOs.

Yes, April 15th is still the dreaded tax day. But thanks to Samuel Johnson, it's also a great day for the English language and its wealth of wonderful words.

Mim Harrison is the founding editor of Levenger Press, which published Jack Lynch's acclaimed edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work That Defined the English Language. She is also the author of Smart Words and Spoken Like a Pro.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 15th 2009, 7:45 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
The article reminded me from my long-ago college days of Johnson's amusing and politically incorrect definition of the word OATS.

"a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."
Wednesday April 15th 2009, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Phil M. (tujunga, CA)
Thank you very much for another wonderful adventure into the world of words and their history. I laughed until I cried. Keep up the great work, I love all that you are doing.


Phil Mendez
Wednesday April 15th 2009, 3:14 PM
Comment by: Steve L. (Delray Beach, FL)
You write good for being an editor.

What would Johnson say to Puff Daddy?

Thanks for being so word smart so I don't have to be.
Thursday April 16th 2009, 5:00 AM
Comment by: Colleen C.
Samuel Johnson was clearly a wise man. Using words that readily share meaning is truly more purposeful and inclusive communication.
Friday July 22nd 2011, 2:16 AM
Comment by: OldFox (Smoky Mountains, TN)
I think Johnson's great contribution was more directly involved with the standardization of spelling, rather than the compilation of definitions, just as with Noah Webster in the new nation, the United States.

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