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 handful of clerks, Johnson’s Dictionary 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 predecessors were many. They tended to be little more than badly organized and poorly researched glossaries of ‘hard words.’ Others were translations from Latin and French or obscure, specialized vocabulary lists. One example was Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604. It listed approximately 3000 ‘difficult’ words, defining each one with a simple and brief description. The greatest failing of these early dictionaries was that they offered little in the sense of the English language as it appeared in use.
Nonetheless, Dr. Johnson borrowed heavily from these forerunners and his 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.
In a contemporary sense, Johnson’s etymologies are considered poor and he offered almost no guide to pronunciation. The dictionary was also linguistically conservative, using traditional spellings such as publick rather than public, simpler spellings favored by Noah Webster 73 years later.
Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests is evident in the 42,000-plus entries. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough berating. Ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language.”
Still, the dictionary was considered the best of its day. The two volumes with their 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 the website, 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 a historical record of the English language.
Preparing your classroom with inspiring and informative decorations that invite interaction is so important for students and teachers 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!