Published on April 15, 1755 and written by Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, is considered to be one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language. Dr. Johnson was a British poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, and editor. With only the help of a few clerks, Johnson’s Dictionary was written singlehandedly and took seven years to complete.
In truth, Johnson’s was not the first English dictionary ever written. There were dozens — but the problems with these forerunners were many. They tended to be little more than poorly organized and poorly researched glossaries of ‘hard words.’ Others were simply obscure and antiquated vocabulary lists. Their greatest failing was that they offered little in the sense of the English language as it appeared in use. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary was the first to comprehensively document the English lexicon.
Johnson’s innovations included illustrations of the meanings of words by literary quotations. He also added notes on a word’s usage, rather than being merely descriptive.
Johnson’s etymologies are considered poor by modern standards and he gave little guide to pronunciation. The dictionary was also linguistically conservative, using traditional spellings such as publick rather than the simpler spellings favored by Noah Webster 73 years later.
Nonetheless, the dictionary was considered the best of its day. Its scope and structure were carried forward in dictionaries that followed, including Noah Webster’s Webster’s Dictionary in 1828 and the Oxford English Dictionary later in the same century.
Johnson’s Dictionary has been available in replica editions for some years. The entire first Folio edition is available on A Dictionary of the English Language as an electronic scan. Just looking at a few pages makes you appreciate the enormity of the project and how valuable it has been as an historical record of the English language.
Preparing your classroom with inspiring and informative decorations that invite interaction is so important for students and teacher alike. Check out some of these ideas from Donald’s English Classroom if you’re getting ready for new classes or need a refresh midyear!