Samuel Johnson or Dr. Johnson, Also known as the “great moralist”, “great talker”, and my personal favourite “a great man who looked like an idiot”. He was a Devout Anglican and a committed Tory. Samuel was a poet, a moralist, an essayist, an editor, biographer, and a critic.

Around 1746, he was hired by a group of London booksellers and publishers to compile the first comprehensive English dictionary. In France, that effort took 40 scholars 40 years to complete. Johnson, in a barb aimed at the supposed inferiority of the French, said he could do it in three; I quote: “The proportion is forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman”.

The dictionary, also sometimes called Johnson’s dictionary was published in 1755.

The First edition took roughly 9 years in preparation and with the help of six assistants to complete, they defined roughly 40,000 words in total; with various shades of meaning it distinguished, the logic and clarity of those definitions as well as thousands of literary quotations many of which Johnson wrote out of from memory.

Books were becoming widely available and literacy was growing. It had a far-reaching effect on the Modern English language and has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship”. The work brought Johnson popularity and success.

To understand Johnson’s undertaking, it’s important to understand the state of English lexicography (practice of compiling dictionaries) in the middle of the 18th century. There were a handful of glossaries of difficult words, but overall, there were no references for the English reader to consult words one might encounter on a day-to-day basis

I like the intro to the preface of the dictionary and some of the selected entries. I quote.

“among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries, whom mankind have considered not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths through which learning and genius press forward to conquest and glory.”

  • Romance : a military fable of the middle ages, a tale of wild adventures in war and love.
  • Romantic : resembling the tales of romances; wild. Improbable. Imaginary.



“You hesitate to stab me with a word, and know not – silence is the sharper sword” -Samuel Johnson

Despite the criticisms in Britain and America, The influence of the Dictionary was sweeping. Johnson established both a methodology for how dictionaries should be put together and a paradigm for how entries should be presented.

Anyone who sought to create a dictionary, post-Johnson, did so in his shadow. Johnson’s work served as a model for lexicographers abroad. His work was translated into French and German. There are numerous examples of influence beyond Johnson’s own circle.

Some ideas to think about along the way;

Language historians study the etymology or how meanings of certain words are changed by time, this phenomenon is known as semantic change (due to Linguistics, Psychological and Sociocultural forces). With that in mind, certain words and their definitions have been changed by time. For example:

  • Nice: This word used to mean “silly or foolish.”
  • Hussy: comes from the word housewife or mistress of a household.
  • Silly: referred to things worthy or blessed.
  • Clue: was a ball of yarn (knitting thread/ball).
    • Threading your way through a maze = evidence = clue


Obstacles, difficulties or limits when compiling a dictionary?

  • Onomatoepia : words that imitate their actual sounds that it represents.
    • tick tock
    • moo
    • boom/buzz.
  • Cross cultural differences: unifying languages or flattening words : may not mean the same thing in a different region or country.